Marco Rubio was once counted out of Florida’s upcoming GOP primary. A few months ago, he trailed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist by such a large margin that some observers advised that he withdraw. Now, a good 20 points ahead of Crist in the latest Rasmussen poll, many are suggesting that Crist is the one who should withdraw. Rubio’s meteoric rise in the polls parallels the growth of the Tea Party movement, which sees Rubio as one of its standard-bearers. So, it turns out, do GOP conservatives. Rubio appeared before the annual CPAC conference last week. His impassioned speech about his humble Cuban-American roots, his family and belief in America’s exceptional role as a beacon of liberty and economic freedom had many audience members close to tears. Already some are calling him the Republican Barack Obama.
But Rubio’s rise—and if current trends hold, probable victory in the August GOP primary—also raises questions about how the party plans to position itself on “hot-button” issues like immigration. The last Republican Cuban-American to gain national prominence, former GOP party chairman and Bush administration HUD Secretary Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), vacated the very seat that Rubio and Crist are competing for. Martinez, once a rising Republican star himself, retired from public life in disgust over the GOP’s declining fortunes with Hispanic voters, for which he squarely blamed his party.
Martinez thought the GOP was alienating Hispanics by tolerating and even encouraging xenophobic rhetoric about illegal immigrants. He largely favored a Democrat-sponsored “amnesty” program for illegals that required those legalized to pay a stiff fine and learn English. He thought, as George W. Bush did, that immigration was part of the American legacy and with some conditions, should be encouraged rather than restricted.
That view fell out of favor in 2006, and from 2006 through 2008, the GOP adopted a harder line on “amnesty.” House Republicans, joined by some House Democrats (the Blue Dogs) strongly resisted the efforts of Senate Democrats to pass an immigration reform bill that included a legalization plan. But as Martinez and others predicted, Republican opposition badly wounded the GOP’s standing with Hispanics. George Bush had won a record 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but thanks to the party’s rhetoric on immigration, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won just 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008. This was a key factor in the GOP’s loss of key swing states like Colorado and New Mexico, and also Florida, where for the first time in decades, a majority of Hispanics voted for the Democratic presidential candidate.
Which brings us back to Rubio. Here is an emerging Hispanic star in the Republican Party, with an unusually compelling immigration story. Of course, he was born here and his parents never jumped a border fence or overstayed a visa because, as Cubans fleeing Castro, they had privileged immigration status. But millions of Cubans do try to arrive on our shores illegally, and some have succeeded. Yet the GOP, and even more so, Rubio’s Tea Party sponsors, are staunchly opposed to illegal immigration.
Where does Rubio stand? No one seems to know. He certainly wasn’t saying at CPAC. But according to most polls, a good 25 percent of Hispanics—mostly long-time US citizens, and some nationalities, like Cuban-Americans, more than others—also oppose illegal immigration. Which raises an interesting question: can Rubio’s ethnicity and feel for Hispanic voters make the GOP’s hard-line stance on illegal immigration more credible? Can the GOP rest on its laurels, hoping that enough Rubios come along to convince more and more Hispanics that illegal immigration is “bad” for America?
It’s not likely. The problem? Many and perhaps most Hispanics, including legal immigrants, have members of their immediate or extended family who are here in the U.S. illegally. Some live in the very same house together. Rubio himself probably knows Cubans who have tried or would like to try to enter the U.S.–illegally if necessary. So it’s not so easy to separate legal Hispanics from illegal ones. Which is why it’s such an emotional issue, and why so many Hispanics favor some kind of “amnesty” for those already here.
But what about future illegal immigrants? Can the GOP support integration of some or all of the current illegal alien population if Congress agrees to create a truly airtight immigration enforcement regime? One that makes it next to impossible for illegal immigrants to cross US borders, or if they do, to use false papers to obtain employment? It’s this kind of explicit policy trade-off that seems to be animating the current negotiations in Congress and with the White House over the future of immigration reform. The question is: where might the GOP, in search of stronger Hispanic support, position itself on this question?
Right now, only Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), considered a traitor by GOP conservatives for supporting “amnesty” in the past, is actively participating in the discussions on the Republican side. Most Republicans, and indeed, most Democrats, are ducking for political cover or at least waiting to see what happens in November before weighing in further.
At some point, though, and soon, the GOP must bite the bullet. By 2050, Hispanics will comprise 25 percent of the U.S. population; whites, just 50 percent. And the Hispanic share of the U.S. voting population, currently just 7.5 percent, could double by then. Immigration isn’t the only thing that concerns Hispanics, but it’s a key stumbling block to their willingness to identify more closely with the GOP on so many other issues, from abortion and school choice to the war on terrorism.
Removing this block to expanded Hispanic support is essential if the GOP is to rise to the challenge of a more culturally diverse America. And Marco Rubio, a powerful symbol of America’s changing demographics—whose own immigration story is not about welfare or unemployment, but education, work, and social mobility – could prove an ideal spokesperson and rallying point for this effort.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.