Several of the candidates smiled at the ground as if in shame. Their tense postures and nervous facial expressions made them look like undocumented immigrants being interrogated about driver's licenses. And, when asked about the thorny issue of immigration during the first-ever Spanish language Republican Presidential debate on Univision television last night, all of the candidates took the same tack: loudly lauding "legal" immigrants while softly decrying "illegals".
It was as if having to translate their message into Spanish forced the candidates to mellow out on immigration with a tab of ecstasy or some other mind-altering substance. Instead of the usually militant deployment of their ultimate wedge issue, the GOP candidates spent a good part of the first debate overwhelmingly dominated by immigration praising and parsing immigrants with double messages like Mitt Romney's, "We're not going to cut off immigration; we're going to keep immigration alive and thriving...But we're going to end the practice of illegal immigration. It's not inhumane. It's humanitarian. It's compassionate. We're going to end illegal immigration to protect legal immigration." Also typical were John McCain's statement that "we have to address this issue with compassion and love, because these are human beings".
Gone last night were Giuliani's denunciations of "sanctuary mansions"; Absent were Romney's impassioned descriptions of New York as "a sanctuary city for illegal aliens." We heard little of Mike Huckabee's new get tough on "illegals" line he copied from an extreme right wing think tank. Asked about whether the children of the undocumented had a right not to be separated from their parents, Fred Thompson forgot to mention that he's even open to the possibility of altering or abolishing the guarantees of citizenship in the 14th Amendment.
The GOP candidate's distinction between legal and "illegal" last night masks a deeper problem, one that extends beyond 2008 and electoral politics: years of anti-immigration rhetoric has led Republicans to institutionalize the Latino equivalent of the "N" word. The debate will do little to nothing to improve Republican fortunes among Latinos because their immigration policies and their angry, mantra-like repetition of words Latinos consider offensive like "Illegals" and "illegal aliens" have given rise to the politics of the "I" word.
This was made clear by Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas, who, during one of her questions, mentioned surveys concluding that 4 of every 5 Latino residents and citizens felt the impact of the "negative tone of the immigration debate". In response to another question about the reasons for the decline in Latino support for the Republican Party, not a single candidate even mentioned the issue of immigration. Not one. Instead, they chose to point to a picture of the Statue of Liberty behind them as they preached about a "pluralistic nation" that "welcomes people of all ethnicities". Continuation of such vapid responses to the intense and growing concerns about anti-Latino racism will mean the birth of a permanent anti-GOP voting block in our increasingly non-white electorate.
GOP Latino strategists advising the various campaigns seemed to mistakenly tailor their messages to the overwhelmingly Cuban-American audience in Miami last night. The 4% of Latinos that are Cuban-American aren't as concerned about immigration as the rest of the estimated 46 million mostly Mexican and Central American Latinos are. And studies by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and others show that GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans are the Latinos most likely to check of "white" on the Census, which means that they are more likely to be among the 1/5th of Latinos that do not feel the racism of Republican-led immigration histrionics.
Predictable denunciations of Fidel Castro and praise for "legal" immigrants may score with some (not all) Latinos in South Florida. But the overwhelming majority of Latinos watching last night heard nothing to dispel the sense that Republicans are manipulating them as part by what some pundits are calling the "new Willie Horton".
As a result, even loyal GOP Latinos groups like Latino evangelicals have started to abandon the party. And it appears that nobody told the candidates that immigrants were among the groups primarily responsible for the up tick in Latino support for the Republicans in 2004. The culture of hatred fostered by the immigration debate has also sparked a renewed culture of activism seen in the Latino blogosphere, on the streets and, soon, in the voting booth.
As in the days when one was called a sellout or "vendido" with words like "Uncle Tom" or "Tio Taco", the GOP candidates pathetic performance previews a near future that will likely see the resurgence of another such term: Republicano.
So, while potentially effective with white voters in the short term, immigration wedge politics are also giving birth to another kind of wedge, the long term wedge born of the "I" words Republican presidential candidates so love to chant- in English.