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Republicans and Immigration: Winning Doña Hortencia Back

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voz y votoWASHINGTON — Conservative Republicans want Marco Rubio to be the vice-presidential candidate in November’s presidential election. At least, that’s what the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) showed last weekend. While speculation continues about whether or not Rubio will be on the ballot alongside the eventual Republican presidential nominee, the real question is whether Rubio can appeal to Latino voters outside of Florida, and if he can improve the anti-immigrant image the Republican Party has attained in some corners the Hispanic community and with many Latino voters.

It’s an image they’ve put a lot of time into cultivating. It began to solidify after the 2008 elections, when  Republican presidential candidate John McCain, seeking support from the far-right base during the primaries, threw his own immigration-reform bill under the bus and started to talk about walls and border security first.” In the general election, he scared off the Latino voters who could have made him more competitive against a Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, who didn’t have McCain’s record of fighting for comprehensive immigration reform.

We often talk in the abstract about how Latino voters have abandoned the Republican Party as it has allowed its most divisive and abrasive voices to dominate the conversation on immigration.

But every now and then, we run into Hispanics who can explain firsthand why they left the Republican tent.

In Colorado, during this year’s Republican caucuses (in which Rick Santorum ultimately beat Mitt Romney), we interviewed Olivia Mendoza, executive director of the Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO), who told us how she and her family had been legalized under the 1986 amnesty bill signed by Ronald Reagan, and how her family had remained loyal to the Republican Party ever since. But, that all changed in 2008, when, “watching Univisión, John McCain comes out attacking immigration reform, changing his position entirely.””

Doña Hortencia, Olivia’s mother, explained why she, her husband and her brother-in-law switched parties in 2008, from Republican to Democrat.

Hortencia told us that they felt a profound gratitude toward Ronald Reagan for signing the 1986 amnesty bill into law. As soon as they became citizens and registered to vote, they supported Republican candidates when they went to the polls. It’s a story that’s common among many of those legalized under the 1986 amnesty.

“Then we started to pay more attention,” Hortencia said.

In 2008, during the Obama-McCain race, the Mendozas didn’t like how McCain changed his position on immigration. So they abandoned the Republican Party, registered as Democrats, and voted for Obama.

“In that election my husband told me over and over, ‘just check D’ (for Democrat). I know that Obama can’t help everyone as much as he would like because there are millions of us, but I’m thinking that yes, I’m going to vote for the Democrat again,” Hortencia said, when asked about Obama’s reelection. This despite the fact that he hasn’t fulfilled his promise to pass immigration reform in his first term.

Doña Hortencia continues to follow the Spanish-language media to see what Republicans are saying about immigration. And what Doña Hortencia sees, hears and reads about the Republicans can be summarized this way: “There’s a lot of discrimination against us.””

“I’ve been listening in Spanish to everything that’s happened. I’ve heard the things they’ve said on television. I see it, I hear it, and I know that it’s bad,” she said.

In this election cycle, what Latino voters have seen, heard and read includes: that Mitt Romney promotes self-deportation and has promised to veto the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for undocumented young people; that one of Romney’s unpaid advisors is Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and the brain behind the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country in Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina; that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich first insisted that his party needed to treat the immigration issue with more humanity, then tried to joke during his CPAC speech that undocumented immigrants could be tracked and located like FedEx or UPS packages.

In Florida, speaking about immigration to the Hispanic Leadership Network, Rubio tried to put a friendlier, more conciliatory face on the Republican side of the issue to the Hispanic audience his party will try to court in November (whether or not he himself is on the ticket). But with the infamy they’ve created for themselves, the Republicans are going to need a lot more Rubios to win back all the Doña Hortencias out there who have abandoned the party, and to win over new followers as well. During that speech, the group Presente.org met Rubio with a banner saying “Marco, no somos Rubios.” (It was a pun on the Senator’s name, which means ‘blonde’ and is also a slang term for light-skinned or white.) I would add that Latino voters also aren’t blind, deaf or forgetful. And that goes, to be sure, for both parties.