Can Marco Rubio Win More Latinos Over to the GOP?

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) addresses the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 9, 2012.

I have always been skeptical of the conventional Beltway wisdom that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will be the politico who finally builds bridges between Latinos and Republicans. It’s not that Rubio isn’t a capable envoy; his efforts to craft an alternative version of the DREAM Act (legislation to let illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children stay in the country) prove he’s serious about outreach. But as a Cuban-American, Rubio represents only 3% of the U.S. Latino population, and that 3% is largely estranged from the rest of the Latino cohort, who tend to resent what they call the free pass los cubanos get on immigration. To think that Mexican-Americans, who make up two-thirds of U.S. Latinos, will embrace Rubio just because he has a Spanish surname simply points up the cluelessness that dug the GOP its Latino hole in the first place.

But in his May 10 remarks to Iowa business leaders who had gathered in Washington, Rubio may have helped narrow the uneasy gap between Cubans and the rest of Latinos. That’s because he took the unprecedented step of comparing the designated beneficiaries of the DREAM Act – who are mostly of Mexican, Central and South American descent – to “Cuban refugees,” who receive preferential immigration treatment because they’re escaping the Castro dictatorship. Extending similar consideration to non-Cuban teenagers and young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children by their illegal immigrant parents is “a humanitarian mission,” said Rubio, 40, himself the son of legal immigrants. “We have a chance to allow them to get right what their parents got wrong.”

Despite his emphasis on the illegality of those undocumented parents, many non-Cuban Latinos are likely to be impressed with the way Rubio is now framing the DREAM discussion. Perhaps most important, they’re likely to see it as a welcome departure from a Cuban-American attitude of exclusivity. For decades, groups like Mexicans, Guatemalans and Colombians – some fleeing political and economic conditions as brutal as communist Cuba’s – have stewed while watching Cubans avail themselves of special rules like “wet-foot-dry-foot.” That’s short hand for the odd code that allows Cubans fleeing the island to get a green card and a path to citizenship if they make it onto American soil before the Coast Guard apprehends them in the Florida Straits.

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What also bothers non-Cuban Latinos is the way many Cuban exiles, especially the older, more hardline generation, object to the suggestion that other hemispheric migrants should be accorded that sort of privilege. Fairly or not, non-Cuban Latinos have long sensed that the exiles jealously guard their special-case status. (Cuban exiles also show up at the polls, which may explain why they have more political heft than non-Cuban Latino citizens, who aren’t as reliable on Election Day.)

That doesn’t mean Cuban-Americans are anti-immigration. In fact, as if mindful of public perception, a number of Cuban-American leaders, like U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, a Republican, and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat, score moderate if not liberal records on immigration policy. But by recognizing that the case of a young person from Chihuahua, or Managua, or Lima – who faces deportation back to a strange country where he or she hasn’t lived since childhood – is comparable to that of a Cuban refugee, Rubio stands to score points with a larger share of the Latino community, especially those turned off by President Obama’s endorsement last week of gay marriage.

Rubio last week told conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham that the White House is trying to sabotage his DREAM bill, which is more restrictive than the one favored by Democrats that is now languishing in Congress. But Rubio’s real problem is his own party. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill, apparently oblivious to new data showing illegal immigration to the U.S. is down significantly, want to see more immigration enforcement passed first. And many are wary if not hostile to Rubio’s endeavor. That recalcitrance may well cancel out any Latino inroads made by Rubio, who, despite his status as a conservative wunderkind and frequent subject of speculation about who Romney will pick as his running mate, has lately urged his party to adopt a less draconian approach to immigration.

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Then again, Rubio’s DREAM Act might not be all that palatable to many Latinos either. Both DREAM versions require legalization candidates to meet college attendance or military service requirements. But Rubio’s doesn’t feature an automatic path to citizenship, and it takes a harder stance against “chain migration,” or allowing DREAM beneficiaries to eventually (well after they’ve been legalized) sponsor their parents or siblings for legalization. (Chain migration has been scaled back in the Democrat-backed DREAM proposal as well.)

Still, Rubio is at least demonstrating an awareness of the divide between Cubans and other Latinos. That’s perhaps not so surprising given that his political mentor is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is tight with the Cuban-American community but also understands, through his Texas background and marriage to a Mexican, the immigration anxieties of non-Cuban Latinos too.

All of which helps make journalists like me a bit less skeptical about Rubio’s chances of bringing more Latinos voters into the Republican fold before November, especially since Obama and the Democrats, who have yet to really press for immigration reform, take Latino support for granted. Rubio will probably need more than six months to change the general outlook of Latinos – which voted 67% for Obama in 2008 – toward not only the GOP but himself and his image as the darling of anti-immigration Tea Partiers. But at least he’s showing non-Cuban Latino voters more than a Spanish surname.

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