What Jan Brewer Talks About When She Talks About Mexico

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This weekend, David Gregory flashed an image of my TIME cover story on the Latino vote in America. Then he held a discussion with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and California Gov. Jerry Brown that perfectly demonstrated the central focus of my story: The inability of Republicans to talk about immigration in a way that welcomes Latino voters to the party of Lincoln.

This is what Brewer said about Mexico, a state where one in four Arizona residents has family ties.

The bottom line is we do need our border secured because we understand that Mexico is in terrible unrest and they’re–that the whole state of Mexico is being controlled by drug cartels and all of that crime is coming across our border and Arizona is the gateway.  Texas has done a very good job of securing their borders with the help of the federal government.  California has done a good job.  But we are the gateway and we are the recipients of our citizens being threatened by the drug cartels, living in fear, having to protect their property and their families, drop houses being in normally stable neighborhoods, prostitution, and the extortion of those illegal people that are coming that maybe possibly are coming to work, their families are being extorted, and they’re being tortured.

This is what Brown said about the same problems in Mexico.

Every President has tried to secure the border.  The fact is these drugs generate billions of dollars in profit, guns from America go down to Mexico, the dope comes up, the billions of dollars go down.  It takes a collaborative work, Mexico and the U.S., we’ve got to invest in Mexico, we’ve got to give them all the tools that we can and work together to get rid of the cartels but build up Mexico so the employment can be there instead of forcing people across the border.

Let us set policy aside. Just pay attention to the rhetoric. Brewer paints a picture of Mexico as a chaotic dystopia, a source of torture and prostitution, where “illegal people,” a phrase many Latinos see as pejorative, are preyed upon by drug dealers. “The whole state of Mexico is being controlled by drug cartels,” she says, a claim that is as factually false as it is rhetorically bold.

Brown by contrast describes the same problem, but speaks of Mexico as a partner with the U.S. in a long struggle. Rather than dismissing the country as a fallen land, he speaks of the need for “collaborative” work, and of U.S. investment.

(PHOTOSBeing Latino in Arizona)

Neither of these passages deal much with policy. But they send dramatically different messages to the roughly three in five American Latinos who have family ties in Mexico. And they explain the politics that have elected each of them. Brown would probably not be governor if it were not for the votes of citizens who have roots in Mexico. Brewer is governor despite the votes of citizens who have roots in Mexico.

The problem for Brewer, and the Republican Party in the Southwest, is that her path to victory is going to become harder, and Brown’s will become easier, simply because of demographics. This year, the number of Latino voters in Arizona is expected to grow 23% from 2008. This is not the end of a boom. It is far more likely to be the midway point, if not the beginning.