Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What Latinos want from candidates? Respect

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri June 1, 2012
 Mitt Romney addresses the Latino Coalition's 2012 Small Business Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on May 23.
Mitt Romney addresses the Latino Coalition's 2012 Small Business Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on May 23.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Among Latino voters, immigration is a test of candidates' character
  • He says Romney pandered to anti-immigrant forces during the primaries
  • Navarrette says Obama's policy of deporting illegal immigrants has broken up families
  • He urges candidates to address need for immigration reform, then deal with other issues

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- For anyone who wants to make a serious play for the Latino vote -- and not just go through the motions -- here's what you need to know: Latinos are single-issue voters.

The issue is respect. Or, as we say, respeto. Nothing else matters. If you want the votes of Latinos, show some respect. Or we'll show you the door.

I know what you're thinking. What's so special about this constituency?

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Three things: Size, geography and unpredictability. In 2008, about 10 million Latinos voted; the 2012 figure could be higher. Latinos are well represented in "battleground" states (i.e. Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico). And, in the case of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who make up about 66% of the U.S. Latino population, they're in play because they have shown a willingness to vote for moderate Republicans even though most are registered Democrats.

Polls show that Latinos are just like other voters in that they care about education, jobs, the economy and health care. But their antennae go up when they see politicians using the immigration issue to scare up votes -- and, in the process, treating them like piƱatas.

Latino vote up for grabs
Should Romney pick a Latino for VP?
Latino vote may decide 2012 election

That is disrespectful. And while neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has gone that far, there is still a problem. Neither of these candidates seems to respect Latinos, as evidenced by their cynical attempts to manipulate the immigration issue and take gimmicky shortcuts to get Latino support. This is why both are having trouble with Latino voters.

"Trouble" is defined differently for each candidate. In polls, Romney is having trouble getting as much as 30% of the Latino vote. Political observers note that a Republican presidential hopeful needs at least 35% to win. Obama has more than twice that level of support but his problem is that there's an enthusiasm gap and, if Latinos don't turn out for Obama, Romney will win.

Romney took a wrong turn when he lurched to the right in the Republican primaries to pander to the nativist wing of the party. He portrayed illegal immigrants as takers and usurpers of public benefits and giveaways. He knows better. He is well aware of the fact that illegal immigrants -- most of whom come from Latin American countries -- are lured here by jobs offered by U.S. employers.

Romney should have learned this lesson when it came to his attention, during his stint as governor of Massachusetts, that he had hired a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants. Romney claimed that he didn't know the workers tending to his lawn were in the country illegally. Nonetheless, the experience should have illustrated for him the law of supply and demand: Without a demand for illegal immigrants, there would be no supply.

Obama is not much better. Raised in a black and white world, the president doesn't know much about Latinos. And he hasn't seemed all that interested in learning.

Our most important institution is the family. One good way to get on our bad side is to divide hundreds of thousands of families by deporting more than 1.2 million people in three years. And when you accomplish that feat by roping local police into the enforcement of immigration law through a program like Secure Communities in ways that invite ethnic profiling, this isn't going to win you any friends among Latinos.

Finally, when you get caught in the act and these things come to light, it's not a good idea to insist that most of the folks deported were criminals, when criminal activity has been cited as a reason for deportation in only 17% of the cases last year. So far, in 2012, that figure is down to 14%. Who makes up the rest? It's likely that the answer is gardeners, housekeepers and nannies who pose no threat to society.

Naturally, neither Romney nor Obama wants to talk about immigration. When Romney spoke to a Latino business group recently, he talked about education but didn't say a word about the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to undocumented students who go to college or join the military. When administration officials recently invited a group of Latina bloggers to the White House, the main topics of discussion were education and health while immigration was conspicuously left off the agenda.

Guess what? Immigration came up anyway, when the bloggers asked about it during the question and answer session. That's the thing about immigration. Unless it is dealt with head-on, it seeps into the discussion of other issues. It happened during the health care debate, when what consumed many conservatives was the question of whether illegal immigrants could access benefits under "Obama-care."

Gentlemen, you can run but you can't hide. You have to talk about immigration. Until you clear the air, admit what you've done wrong, and try to make it right, you can't expect Latinos to listen to what you have to say on any other subject -- or if they do, to believe what they hear.

Gov. Romney, stop pandering to racists and nativists in the GOP base by portraying illegal immigrants as takers; acknowledge that the only thing that lures them here are jobs provided by U.S. employers who need to be held accountable; stop proposing simplistic solutions like saying that all illegal immigrants should "self-deport"; and take up the cause of American businesses who can't find U.S. workers to do jobs that immigrants wind up doing because parents are raising their kids to feel entitled to avoid hard work.

President Obama, stop saying you don't have the executive power to stop deportations when it has been established by a slew of legal experts, including nearly 100 law professors who recently sent a memo to the White House, that you do.

Stop deportations of college-age students who would have been eligible for legal status under the Dream Act and the parents of U.S.-born children; stop portraying Republicans as singlehandedly preventing immigration reform, and take your share of responsibility for not getting it done; and propose to Congress a specific plan for comprehensive immigration reform.

Do all that, and we'll be able to get past immigration and move onto other topics. Jobs. The economy. Education. The environment. Whatever you want. But immigration comes first, because it lets us assess your character. Or lack thereof.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT