The 1994 campaign ad that turned California from a purple to a blue state began with grainy black-and-white footage of Latino migrants sprinting the wrong way down a six-lane freeway near San Diego. "They keep coming," the narrator announced over an ominously thumping soundtrack. The ad helped re-elect GOP governor Pete Wilson and pass a ballot measure, later tossed by the courts, that barred undocumented immigrants from nonemergency public health care, education and social services. The California GOP, however, has yet to recover from that double win. "It absolutely damaged the Republican brand," says Jennifer Korn, who led George W. Bush's Latino-outreach effort in 2004. "Conservatives have not realized how their tone and rhetoric has turned people off." Over the next six years, the chances that California Latinos would identify as Republican dropped from 34% to 12%, while the odds they would identify as Democratic rose from 38% to 63%. At the same time, Latino voter registration boomed as unions and community groups mounted citizenship and registration drives. Richard Nixon won California three times, Ronald Reagan won it twice, and George H.W. Bush won it once. Since Wilson, no Republican other than Arnold Schwarzenegger has won a top statewide office.
But instead of learning the Wilson lesson, Republicans have repeated the error across the Mountain West. In 2010 the Nevada GOP's Senate candidate, Sharron Angle, ran ads that reprised the black-and-white images of menacing Latinos crossing the border. ("The best friend an illegal alien ever had" was her tagline for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who won overwhelming support from Latino voters.) Arpaio, the Republican sheriff in Phoenix, has been chastened by the Justice Department for unlawfully profiling, detaining and arresting Latino residents. And the 2012 Republican campaign trail has more often than not echoed Wilson's approach. Romney named Wilson as honorary chair of his campaign in California and toured South Carolina with the Kansas secretary of state who helped write the Arizona law that pushed Valenzuela and Team Awesome into action in the first place. "You look at what Pete Wilson did in California 15 years ago," says Messina, "and that is what this primary is doing with Latino voters."
Within months, the damage to Republicans among Latinos was measurable. In a January survey for the Spanish-language network Univision, pollster Matt Barreto found that 27% of Latinos felt the Republican Party was hostile toward Hispanics, while an additional 45% believed Republicans "don't care much" about them--a total of 72% who don't feel welcomed by the party. (And the numbers are getting worse: back in April 2011, just 20% sensed hostility from the Republicans.) The GOP's nativist drift led Newt Gingrich, who takes slightly more centrist positions on immigration, to call Romney "anti-immigrant." It has rallied a group of party elders, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush and strategist Karl Rove, to appeal for a more moderate tone. "We know that this is the fastest-growing segment and that we have to increase our share," warns Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican Party, who recently spoke to a gathering of conservative Latinos in Florida. "In 2020, if the Republican nominee for President gets the same percentage of the white, Hispanic, African American and Asian vote that John McCain got in 2008, a Democrat will be elected to the White House by 14 percentage points."
Now you know why the White House let this pass without much comment.
Obama has had some serious fence mending to make with Latinos...er, sorry, that allegory was a bit outré. He took pride at one point at having deported more undocumented immigrants in his first two years than Bush did in his entire administration. Clearly, that's not a way to curry favor with people who are suspected of being illegal-by-accent.
To his credit, well marginally to his credit a cynic might point out, Obama has made some strides for Latinos in this country, like not forcing spouses to leave the country to apply for citizenship and finding ways to keep families together despite immigration statuses. He has also made at least three attempts at getting the DREAM Act passed, whereby minors who entered this country illegally would be welcome to stay to complete a college degree or serve two years in the military. Filibustered by Republicans each time.
And he has much work to do still, but at least in Obama and the Democrats, this fast-growing sector of the population doesn't experience downright animosity.
A side note: ever hear a Republican talk about illegal Irish immigration? This is a racial issue, first and foremost for them.
My own stance on immigration is simple: open the door. Immigrants have been the single biggest engine of economic growth in this country since, well, colonial times. At this point in our history, facing chronic economic malaise and massive inertia to do nothing amongst our political classes, and an obvious inability on the part of the wealthy to "create jobs"-- there's a laugh-- we need all the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit we can muster. Immigrants provide that.
Coming here with few preconceptions except that it's possible to make a living here, immigrants open the grocery stores, the laundromats, the card shops. They send their kids to school to get an education to make lives that are one step easier than they have it.
Eventually, they pay their way into the American dream, buying cars, houses, a college education for the kids. Instead of pasting a label of "illegal" on them, let's do what we've always done: take the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and integrate them into our culture.
Language issues, you say? So? The English you speak now is a compendium of the English that was spoken in the 19th Century, plus a few thousand foreign words that made their way into our dialogue. It's messugeh to think that language is a set-in-stone communiqué, capisci? Gracias. I'm glad we can discuss this mano a mano and come to some verstandnis.
So Obama letting Jan Brewer get in his face is a very powerful image, one that Latinos in Arizona, as well as nationwide, will immediately identify with.
After all, Brewer is the face of the man who wants to keep Latinos in their places, the one who doesn't mind them picking the crops so long as they don't ask for health insurance or a decent wage.
She's the cop who pulls over because she sees a band of mijos standing on a street corner and demands "papers, please!"
She's the neighbor who complains at eight o'clock at night that the party is too loud and that awful native musica!
She's the boss who tries to "speak the lingo, gringo" because it will keep his workers smiling and productive, and not lazy.
She's the grocery customer who keeps a close eye as the cashier rings up the sale, making sure nothing gets scanned twice, and that she gets all her change, because you know how shifty "they" are.
And she's the one who wants to build a fence so high that it doesn't keep people out, but it keeps her mind closed.