It’s striking that in a presidential season with two viable Latino contenders, discussion of Hispanic voters has been negligible.
This will change as the primaries move to states with larger Latino populations, Nevada being first up. In those states, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio will come under questioning for ethnic loyalty.
This scrutiny will do them no favors. While some may imagine that Cruz or Rubio would get a boost in the general election from being the first Hispanic presidential nominee, either one would only help to hand the White House to the Democrats. The reason is simple: They continue to spurn other Hispanics.
Here we have two children of immigrants trying to get elected by demonizing immigrants. Indeed, Rubio and Cruz embody a reality that they and their party deny: Latinos become Americanized very quickly.
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Both men are very close to their immigrant roots, one generation away. Yet both men are highly assimilated. Rubio’s love of rap music and respect for Pitbull, N.W.A., Tupac and Nicki Minaj, is often cited. Cruz, raised in Texas and the son of an evangelical preacher, has a penchant for Western attire and after 9/11 switched his preference from classic rock to country music.
This is not exceptional for Latino families, whether they are legally in the United States or not. Assimilation happens; it’s an unstoppable force of our society.
Neither man speaks with an accent; only Rubio is bilingual. Latino immigrant families shift from Spanish, becoming monolingual in English by the third generation. They follow the same pattern, the same fluid rate of language acquisition, as previous immigrant groups, be they European or Asian. In fact, some studies suggest that language shifts are now occurring faster for Latinos, due to technology.
But to appeal to a GOP base that is positioned as anti-immigrant, these two have taken to casting other Latino immigrants as the outsiders, as resistant to becoming Americanized, as unworthy of opportunities to right their immigration status, whether that be by legislation or executive order.
On the campaign trail this year, only one message is permissible to Republican candidates: Latinos are to be feared and deported. Build the wall! Secure the borders! End birthright citizenship!
Never mind that migration from Mexico has dramatically slowed and that illegal migration peaked nearly a decade ago.
Some ascribe Rubio’s and Cruz' lack of sympathy to being of Cuban descent. Cubans enjoy a huge advantage over other immigrants. If they can reach U.S. soil, they have an easy path to permanent legal status within a year. It’s a leftover policy from the Cold War, when many were fleeing the persecution of communist repression, although that wasn’t the case with either of the senators’ families.
Increasingly, that connection to yesteryear is fraying. Cuban-Americans are moving away from their once steadfast ties to the GOP.
Interestingly, Rubio probably got a taste of the non-Cuban immigrant experiences. He spent a portion of his teen-age years in Las Vegas, where his father found work as a bartender. The young Rubio was often assumed to be Mexican-American and counted many Mexican-American schoolmates as his closest friends. It reasonable to assume that he knew kids who had parents or other family members who were in this country without legal status.
Perhaps that experience is what led Rubio to join the Gang of Eight, a group of senators who authored the last sane proposal for immigration reform, in 2013.
Now he tries to scrub that fact from his record.
A record 27.3 million Latinos will be eligible to vote this election cycle. Nearly half, 44 percent, will be millennials, according to Pew Research Center. Data crunchers believe that the eventual winner of the 2016 presidential election will need to draw at least 40 percent of Hispanic votes.
Immigration obviously isn’t the only issue of interest to Latinos; it isn’t even the most important. Jobs, the economy, education rank very high too.
Given their current posturing on immigration, neither Rubio nor Cruz has a chance.
The backlash is coming. A group of high-profile Latino celebrities, including Benjamin Bratt, America Ferrera, George Lopez and Zoe Saldana, organized to call on the GOP presidential candidates to end their anti-immigrant fear-mongering.
Guitarist Carlos Santana, in a statement, underlined the plea this way: “It’s never too late to graduate from the university of fear!” Sadly, it may be if you are seeking the Republican nomination.
Mary Sanchez, an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.