The GOP Doesn't Need Hispanic Outreach—It Needs a Hispanic Takeover

A makeover will fail unless it roots out the discrimination and racism embedded within the party, and Latino candidates are the best way to do that.
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The debate over an immigration-reform bill has given us a glimpse into the emerging war within the Republican Party. On one side are those sensitive to the party's demographics problem, who support a compromise. On the other are those who continue to oppose any bill that includes tens of thousands of work visas and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.

Since Mitt Romney's defeat in November, Republicans have worried about how to woo Latino voters. In a postmortem analysis of the election, the RNC concluded that the Republican Party needed to be more "inclusive and welcoming." Many conservatives looked nostalgically back to 2004, when more than 40 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush, compared to Romney's 27 percent. They believe that Latinos are naturally conservative, and are sure to line up in the 'R' column if the party can just fix its image with them.

But how? Some have shone a spotlight on Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Others rejoiced when the Latino George P. Bush -- one of the "little brown ones" that his grandfather George H.W. Bush mentioned years ago, referring to his dark skin -- announced that he would run for office in Texas. Still others think the answer lies in their party's embrace of the bipartisan Gang of Eight's immigration proposal.

None of those superficial solutions will work, however, until and unless the GOP confronts the discrimination that persists within its ranks -- and the discriminatory effects of its policies. That's why Latino conservatives are plotting a takeover of the party, setting the stage for the next major realignment of Republican politics.

There's definitely something to the argument that many Latinos hold conservative views. Ever since Lorenzo de Zavala -- the so-called Mexican Tocqueville -- traveled through the United States in the early 1800s, many Mexicans have seen our country as a beacon of liberty and prosperity. Towards the end of the century, Puerto Ricans and Cubans increasingly saw the United States as a force of liberation from the yoke of the Spanish empire. They converted to Protestantism, attended universities in the United States, and formed business partnerships with Americans, both on the islands and the mainland. During the Cold War, Latinos railed against Communism.

What's more, some Latinos -- a faction led by Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican -- support restrictive immigration laws. They believe that immigrants must migrate legally, as they themselves did. In 1994, almost a quarter of Latinos in California voted for Proposition 187, which would have denied undocumented immigrants access to public education, health benefits, and other services (the referendum passed, but a federal court found it unconstitutional). In 2010, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 24 percent of "Hispanics," particularly men and those 50 years and older, supported Arizona's notorious S.B. 1070, which requires police to verify the immigration status of individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.*

But is any of that enough? One of my students told me recently about her Latina grandmother, who -- despite her conservative views on the economy, immigration, and marriage -- always votes for Democratic candidates. Why? Because, she told her granddaughter, no matter how much she agreed with the Republicans, that party would never see her as an American.

And therein lies the Republican problem. The party's makeover will fail unless it roots out the discrimination -- even racism -- that's embedded within the GOP. Redistricting, housing, identification, restrictive voting, and other Republican-sponsored laws affect Latinos and other minorities disproportionately. According to a Pew Research Center report, more than 80 percent of Latinos believe discrimination is an obstacle to their success in America -- and they see that discrimination as most deeply rooted amongst Republicans.

Latinos remember past efforts to exclude them, like signs in restaurant windows that read "no dogs or Mexicans allowed." They see the same attitude in many contemporary Republican-sponsored actions, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio's raids targeting Mexican communities in Arizona. Mitt Romney's calls for "self-deportation" recalled episodes from the 1930s and 1950s when millions of Mexicans -- labeled as economic burdens, Communists, and other kinds of threats -- were forcibly removed from the country. Alaskan Republican Rep. Don Young's recent comment about "wetbacks" on his father's farm did not exactly help.

To be sure, Democrats aren't always steadfast Latino allies. Both Republicans and immigrant-rights activists -- odd bedfellows in other circumstances -- have criticized the Obama Administration's record number of deportations and failure to push for comprehensive immigration reform during his first term. During the campaign season, conservative Latinos such as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ruben Navarrette, Jr. noted that unemployment among Latinos was higher in 2012 than when Obama took office, and harped on the administration's efforts to cover up the Fast and Furious gun-smuggling scandal, which strained U.S.-Mexico relations.

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Geraldo L. Cadava is an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of the forthcoming book Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland.

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