A Message to the GOP from Two Latino Conservatives: Don't Blow this Opportunity!

At the most recent Florida debate, a verbal slug-fest emerged between the outspoken Newt Gingrich and the current leading GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney. They traded rhetorical blows on a variety of issues, but one issue stands out at this moment as a lot of attention has gone to the Latino vote – that is, the issue of immigration.

Mitt lambasted Newt for calling him “anti-immigrant,” and defended himself with the fact that his father was born in Mexico, and that his father-in-law was born in Wales. Romney also reminded Newt that Marco Rubio (whom has stressed a need for a republican immigration plan) recently called for Newt to end his “inflammatory” rhetoric. Newt then pressed Mitt for details as to how he would handle the 11 million immigrants that are already here illegally; “self-deportation” was Mitt’s response.

Now at this point, neither candidate has shown that they can secure the coveted 40% of the Hispanic vote, but the GOP has been given a unique opportunity to connect with the Latino community, which could help them towards that goal.

So, how do we “connect”? It’s easier than it might seem, as a recent conversation on the bus ride to work made clear:

“He promised us, we voted for him and he broke his promise. No more.”

Meet Lupe, once an immigrant from Michoacán (MX) and now an American from Ontario (CA). She is upset with President Obama. He not only failed to deliver on immigration-reform and job growth, but his administration actively pursued a hard-line approach to immigration that has deported hundreds of thousands. She has noticed.

Ask Lupe what she is all about, and she’ll tell you “work and church.” As she elaborated on the west-bound bus line, “We came with nothing but our belief in God. I raised my sons like men, and I have told them to work. I tell my husband, whose first job was in the fields, not to give them money for a car. They have to work for it. Otherwise, they’ll get lazy.”

Lupe is not alone; there are many like her. With these shared values, it can’t help but be asked, why did the Republicans lose so much of the Hispanic vote in 2008? The answer is simple–immigration. Immigration was a key concern, and illegal-immigrant “hawk talk” didn’t help. In fact, it did the opposite.

We could tell ourselves that immigration is not a defining issue for Latino voters and as long we have a young, charismatic and articulate Latino VP candidate, we will have a nice chunk of the Latino electorate in the bag this election year. We’ll emphasize social conservatism and jobs, couch it in ethnic language, and voila! 35-40% of the Latino vote! Now even if otherwise conservative Latinos wanted to overlook the perceived Republican hard-line position on immigration, it’s just not that easy because initial impressions are not easy to erase. The fact remains that a majority of Latinos remain suspicious of the Republican Party so much so that President George W. Bush’s achievement of 40% of the Latino vote in 2004 was considered an electoral miracle. But he earned it not only by emphasizing family values, but by advocating positions important to the Latino community.

Fast forward to today. Throw in a new wave of tough enforcement-only rhetoric, buttressed by SB1070-type laws, and you got plenty of ammo with which the Republicans can proceed to shoot themselves in the foot. Just think of it. If you’re a Democrat strategist, and you know Hispanics are upset with your party’s President, wouldn’t you be counting on the GOP to sabotage themselves with calls to “deport now”? Luckily, the current GOP candidates aren’t completely unaware of this, and in the last Florida debate, both Mitt and Newt dismissed the idea of indiscriminately “rounding up people and deporting them.”

Now with so many reasons for Latinos to be wary of the Republican Party in 2012, we should really consider it a godsend that Republicans have been granted a unique opportunity this year to regain some of this Latino vote. And why shouldn’t we? It is still true that Latinos and Conservatives are natural allies; these two groups share a similar core of values.

The good news is that even though Latinos as a whole may have reservations about the Republican Party in general, they are DEFINITELY not completely at home in the Democratic Party. We share, on a very deep level, the social and economic ethos of the conservative movement, and some of us are more than willing to do our part this year to increase the Latino presence in the Republican Party. But… you gotta work with us here! We cannot make the case for the GOP to our fellow Latinos; if that means that we also have to defend the hard-line on immigration. It’s not gonna go over too well with our friends, family and fellow church-members. Just trust us on this one!

The other piece of good news is that most Latinos have yet to hear a real immigration plan fully laid out. Notice that the media does not ask much about Newt’s plan, and there’s a reason. It’s palatable, with compassion, common sense, and uncompromising standards, respecting the rule of law. Somos Republicans, the largest Hispanic Republican organization in the country, has endorsed Newt Gingrich precisely because he has a decent plan, and has struck the right tone on a thorny issue. His plan, has also been commended by other Hispanic Republican commentators as a good start with 10 positive points.

Here’s the truth: Romney has already been painted with the immigration-hawk label among many Latinos, and it’s not going to be removed easily. If he is indeed the nominee, and that is starting to look more and more likely, then he needs to take a page out of Gingrich’s playbook on this one: not only in tone (which he did better with in the last debate); but also in substance (which still needs improvement). Newt hasn’t earned favor among Latinos for anything – he’s gone out on a limb, often in front of very conservative audiences and given voice to this more sensible approach to immigration, and he’s outlined a plan that emphasizes things like a guest-worker program, residency, building towards achieved citizenship for those who have established long deep roots in this country, and other common sense ideas; while also emphasizing issues of border security, assimilation, etc. The eventual Republican nominee would be smart to adopt some version of this plan and not leave it for tomorrow. It’s an approach that would be popular among the American population in general, and which remains true to conservative principles of free markets, rule of law, and family values. Not only that, but the votes we are working for are of a conservative-minded and rapidly-growing people. The two groups who, according to David P. Goldman, are increasing the population of this country with bigger families are of course Hispanics (namely Roman Catholics) and Evangelicals; neither of whom shy away from having more kids, which is evident from the Baptism line-up at church to the local little-league roster. These are groups that share a similar core with us.

Now is the time to increase the ranks of the conservative movement with millions of people that already share our values, are rooted in this society, are willing to labor, and like many Americans aren’t afraid to take risks by starting small businesses from their homes. Let’s offer them a clear choice to think about this election year, and let us not have immigration become a distraction. Rather, let’s make it an opportunity for conservatives to take the lead in offering common sense solutions that will not only help to grow this economy and increase the conservative base, but also provide real hope for the future of our Nation.