By MARY SANCHEZ | OP-ED
The Hartford Courant
7:53 PM EST, February 1, 2013
With Valentine's Day approaching, I thought I'd give the GOP a little friendly advice on avoiding the missteps of courtship.
Some in the party leadership are preparing to woo Latino voters, you see. They're fixing up a nice little heart-shaped box full of immigration reforms in the hopes of rekindling a relationship they effectively dumped in the gutter during the last election.
Will their jilted inamoratas be won over?
Consider this a hesitant first date. Passing sensible immigration reform is a way Republicans can show some respect and lay the groundwork for a more committed and equal partnership on issues more meaningful to Latino voters.
That's right. For all of the attention the immigration issue gets, it is not the top issue for Latino voters. Not by a long shot.
Latinos cast 10 percent of all votes last November, and 71 percent of them supported Barack Obama. Many observers like to ascribe this windfall of support to revulsion with the ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric Republicans spouted in the last election — and there is some truth to that. Yet in exit polls, Latinos consistently cited education, health care, the economy, the budget deficit and jobs as the top political issues that swayed their vote.
There are more than 53 million Latinos in the nation. About 11 million people are illegal immigrants, and not all of them are from Spanish-speaking countries.
Do the math.
It's a defining point. Latino voters' similarities to other voting demographics are greater than their differences. They are concerned about staying employed, providing a solid education for their children and living in a safe society.
The sooner Republicans gets that message, the better they will fare with Latino voters. This largely blue-collar bloc has never been a natural constituency for the GOP, but the party really created a mess over the last four years by continuously addressing Latinos primarily through the filter of immigration — as if Latinos were more bound to a foreign country than to America.
In 2012, the party's fringe elements, including several candidates for the party's presidential nomination, spouted off about illegal immigrants in what could only be described as demeaning diatribes.
So the party leadership will need to conspicuously silence the crazy uncles within the ranks. A few are sure to pop their heads up during the present congressional session if and when immigration bills are introduced.
If you want to mend a broken relationship, a bit of groveling goes a long way, especially if you're the guilty party. And, my friends, that shoe fits the GOP.
Republicans are a proud bunch. If they want to salvage a little bit of dignity, they can blubber about how they strayed from the example of fidelity set by the late, sainted Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 signed into law the last amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Eventually, 2.7 million people were able to become legal through the Immigration Reform and Control Act.
But what Reagan didn't accomplish is equally as important. Congress failed to fix the problems with availability of visas and stringently enforce penalties for businesses hiring illegal labor.
No surprise that people kept arriving, lured by better wages than were available in Mexico and Central America. Most didn't have a prayer to arrive legally, given the inflexibility of the system for low-wage workers and two-decade-long waits to acquire other visa categories based on family ties to relatives already in the U.S. So much for all the talk about "getting in line." There simply wasn't a line for most people to join.
The other truth is that about 40 percent of the illegal population initially arrived legally. They later lapsed into illegal status when visas expired and they failed to leave the country. Braying about "securing the border" first won't affect that problem.
Overall, talk that consistently paints immigrants and Latinos in particular as a problem group, rather than potential assets for the nation, will trip up Republicans if they are not careful. It's about showing respect and dealing with immigrants fairly that Latinos are hoping to hear and see play out in new laws.
The U.S. Senate's bipartisan framework for reform vows: "We will ensure that this is a successful, permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited."
Let's hope the Republicans don't act like a husband who sends a dozen red roses to make nice after a gaffe. Too often, the same fellow refuses to change, relying on flowers and candy to soothe new wounds.
It's the long-term, daily attention that fosters a healthy bond. It's true in love, and in politics.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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