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Marco Rubio: sweet-talking the Latino vote

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voz y votoNote: America’s Voice’s Maribel Hastings, who wrote this post, is in Florida covering the GOP primary. She’ll be filing regular reports on the campaign as part of our “Voz Y Voto 2012” series.

MIAMI— Speaking to the Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN), Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida sounded like someone who knows he’s being considered as a possible running mate for the Republican nominee this fall—and who knows the party has to fix a badly battered relationship with the nation’s Hispanic voters.

Rubio challenged the Republican candidates, and the rest of the party, to confront the difficult issue of immigration and to “not just be the anti-illegal immigration party, but the pro-legal immigration party.” At the same time, he argued, “both sides are guilty of using the issue (of immigration) to divide us.”

His smooth, conciliatory tone was unnecessary to win over the audience in the conference room of a Doral, FL hotel, who gave a standing ovation to the young, charismatic senator speaking in his own backyard. It was directed at another Hispanic audience: those for whom anti-immigrant rhetoric, translated into concrete actions at the state level, and failed, blocked attempts at progress at the federal level, has leveled Hispanic support for the Republican Party—something some Republicans, including those who lead the HLN, want to change this election year.

Rubio’s speech to the center-right group’s conference was interrupted by DREAMers—those who would benefit from the DREAM Act – which would grant legal status to undocumented young people who pursue higher education or enlist in the armed forces.

Rubio is opposed to the DREAM Act in its current form, but he hasn’t yet offered his own version of the measure.

Two young people stood up in the middle of the speech. One of their banners read “Marco Rubio: ¿Latino or Tea Partino?” referring to the support the senator has received from the Tea Party for much of his career. The other said “Your Party or Your People?”

Rubio himself announced to the audience that there was a plane flying over the hotel with a banner that read “Hey Marco, no somos rubios!” (Rubio can refer to someone who’s pale—that is to say, white—but the senator translated it for the crowd as “Marco, we’re not blond.”) “Which, by coincidence, neither am I,” Rubio said. In the speech, as on other occasions, he maintained that he believes these young people should have some form of relief, but that the bills currently on the table—i.e. the DREAM Act—don’t provide the right solution “because they go too far and they don’t have support.”

When he was interrupted, Rubio said, “These young people are very brave to be here today…they raise a very legitimate issue.” He asked the security guards to let them stay in the room, but the young protesters were escorted out. Outside the hotel, about 30 DREAMers protested the senator’s speech.

Rubio wanted them, he said, to hear what he had to say: “I’m not who they think I am. I don’t stand for what they claim I stand for.”

Later in the speech, Rubio tried to pluck at the audience’s heartstrings, as a way to demonstrate empathy and convince them that there are some in the Republican Party who want a solution: he recognized that the immigration system is broken and unsustainable, that people overstay their visas because they’re afraid to go back, that people come here in search of opportunities for their children; that if you put yourself in their shoes, and say that your children had no opportunity, you’d do whatever it took to get out of that situation: “There is no fence high enough, there is no ocean wide enough,” he said. And he recognized that it’s not realistic to think about deporting 11 million people—but neither was it possible to legalize everyone.

“I don’t have a magic answer for you,” he said, but neither (he continued) was it honest for others – meaning the present administration and the Democrats – to pretend that it’s possible to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants, or to politicize the issue.

But the conciliatory face Rubio is now putting forward is inconsistent with the opposition he’s shown to the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. It isn’t  consistent either with the positions of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination who followed Rubio in speaking to the HLN. Newt Gingrich repeated his line that the government must look for some sort of solution—that didn’t include any sort of path to legalization—for immigrants who had spent decades in the country. Mitt Romney basically promoted his “self-deportation” plan.

And there’s the rub. To change the tone of the debate, four days before the Republican primary in Florida and with an eye toward winning the Hispanic vote in the general election, doesn’t erase years of anti-immigrant positions, the refusal to compromise, or the will to negotiate realistic solutions to the immigration dilemma.

The real, concrete actions that Rubio and other Republicans take to work towards real immigration solutions will speak louder than a thousand speeches.