Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What Latinos want from candidates? Respect

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
June 1, 2012 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
 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 piñatas.

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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
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.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT