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Immigration Reform’s Wild-Card Power Broker

The night after the presidential election, the news anchors on the Spanish-language network Univision,  Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Selena, began their nightly newscast with something of a celebration. As Ramos opened the broadcast, the screen lit up with the numbers 71 and 27—the share of the Hispanic electorate that voted, respectively, for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The surge in Latino voting was a coup for Ramos, who is as much an immigration activist as he is a news anchor. In an ABC News advertisement targeting Latino voters, Ramos explained the stakes: “I know we are 50 million strong, but it means nothing if we don’t vote. The lesson is very simple: If you vote, we will be powerful.”

Ramos was right, of course. Latinos came out to vote in record numbers this election, and their impact has been made clear. Univision averaged 3.6 million prime-time viewers the week of the election, almost three times that of Telemundo, it’s closest Spanish-language competitor. Some nights, Univision's newscast outranks even its English language competitors among adults between 18 and 34 in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to the American Journalism Review. And, unlike its competitors, Univision’s ratings are growing.  As evidence of the network’s mounting influence, for the first time in history, both presidential candidates taped individual televised forums with the network. And Univision’s political impact won’t end with the election. Having seen Latinos’ electoral might, both parties are saying immigration reform will likely be on the agenda in 2013 -- and Ramos and Univision are in a prime position to shape the debate.

Over the phone last week, Ramos told me that he sees Univision as a “social leader” in the Hispanic community. The network’s role in the community was especially clear in the weeks before the election, when it devoted extensive news coverage to the voter suppression efforts across the country and provided information for their viewers about voter registration in hopes of getting out the Latino vote. “Some people have really no other option than to watch us to find out what is going to happen with their life,” Ramos told me. In 2010, a survey from the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos was one of four people Hispanics identified as the “most important” national Latino leader—along with Sonia Sotomayor and Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez. When the immigration debate begins in earnest, “from that table in Miami, he is a player in the negotiations,” says Roberto Suro, an expert on Latino politics and media at USC’s Annenberg School (and a friend to Ramos).

Ramos, who is 54, was born in Mexico, where he worked as a radio journalist until 1983 when government censorship compelled him to move to America. In 1986, at the age of 28, he became the anchorman for Univision, and in the years since, he has become an impassioned advocate for undocumented immigrants. Ramos and Univision have not been shy about promoting their liberal stance on immigration. In A Country For All: An Immigrant Manifesto, one of several English-language books Ramos has written on the subject, he lays out his stance on immigration reform, making it clear that he wouldn’t accept anything short of citizenship—not even permanent legal residency—for the undocumented workers in this country.

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Univision’s activism in this regard, Ramos admits, sets it apart from its English-language counterparts. “Within the Hispanic community, since we are gravely under-represented politically, Univision and the Spanish language media have become social leaders or activists,” he says, adding that while Latinos make up nearly 17 percent of the population, they only have 28 members of Congress when they should have at least 75. “Something has to compensate for that. That’s where Univision and Spanish language media comes in. We do things you would not expect other networks to do in terms of giving guidance to our viewers on a lot of issues like immigration, health care, and voter registration.”

In “Not Business as Usual,” an essay in Arizona Firestorm, a book about Arizona’s immigration law, Mercedes Vigon, Lilliam Martinez-Bustos and Celeste Gonzalez de Bustamente  wrote that in Univision and Telemundo’s coverage of SB1070, “there was a fine line between the [n]etworks’ roles as public servants and social activists.” As the network anchor for Univision for 26 years—seven years longer than Walter Cronkite’s 19-year tenure at CBS—Ramos’ influence on the network’s editorial direction can’t be overlooked.

If the GOP’s strategy of embracing immigration reform has any chance of wooing back Latino voters, it will have to depend on Spanish-language media, particularly Univision, to get its message across. Eighty-eight percent of Latinos watch Spanish-language television, according to the American Journalism Review, and Univision is the clear leader in that market. For many Latinos, Univision is their only source of news.“72 percent of Latinos who watch Univision’s main evening news broadcast with Ramos and Salinas do not see any other television news,” according to the Guardian.

This will be difficult for Republicans, because Univision has helped drive the perception that the GOP is hostile to Latinos—for example, when the Spanish language networks covered Arizona’s immigration law, the authors of "Not Business as Usual" wrote that Telemundo and Univision “contributed to a discourse of fear by choosing to frequently include the most outrageous and polemic anti-immi-grants examples, such as the statements of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.”

Still, Republicans did little to counter their party’s image on the network. Only Newt Gingrich and Romney showed for Univision’s Republican primary debate and Romney’s forum with Univision during the general election was disastrous. According to reporting from Buzzfeed, when Ramos mentioned in Romney’s introduction that the candidate had agreed to a 35-minute segment, while the President had agreed to a whole hour, Romney “threw a tantrum” and refused to go on stage until they re-taped it. And, once the forum began, Romney’s audience—made up of campaign volunteers to make up for the lack of interest from University of Miami students— cheered for Romney and booed questions from the moderators, offending Ramos’ co-anchor, Maria Elena Salinas. (Romney’s unusually orangey-tan complexion during the forum also gave way to speculation that he’d intentionally made his face darker for the event, but the make-up artist at Univision later told reporters that the tan was natural.) It also probably won’t help that the Republicans’ supposed leader on immigration reform, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, has a troubled history with the network regarding a dispute over its coverage of his family, a story detailed in The New Yorker by Ken Auletta.

It isn’t too late for Republicans to learn to better use Univision, and Democrats shouldn’t take their lead for granted. Ramos writes and speaks fondly about George W. Bush, who may have been the only presidential candidate to understand the importance of Spanish-language media, having hired Sonia Colin, a former Univision reporter, to handle his Latino outreach in his 2000 campaign. Ramos has been critical of Obama for failing to pass immigration reform in his first term and for deporting a record number of immigrants. Ramos told me that the GOP’s messages on social issues and the size of government resonate in Hispanic communities. “Latinos tend to be closer to the Republican Party when it comes to abortion and religious rights and Latinos’ tend to doubt deeply big government. Remember we are coming from countries in Latin America where we are so used to corruption. Latinos, when it comes to values, are very close to the Republican Party, but unless the Party changes its position on immigration, it doesn’t matter what they do on other issues.”

Soon, the Republicans vague professions of support for immigration reform will have to get specific—namely, whether the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country will be allowed to become citizens and when. Those in the GOP who think their party’s survival depends on winning the immigration reform debate would do well to pay attention to how their policies play with Ramos, who, like the president, supports a path to full citizenship (the White House’s blueprint proposes legal residency after eight years and possible citizenship five years after that). The GOP’s positions aren’t yet clear, but when Boehner expressed support after the election for “comprehensive” reform—policy code for amnesty— conservative members of his conference balked, forcing Boehner to walk back his statements. “I’m concerned that Speaker Boehner is getting ahead of House Republicans when he commits to getting a ‘comprehensive approach’ to immigration” Louisiana Rep. John Fleming said, and Iowa Rep. Steve King tweeted “Obama voters chose dependency over Liberty. Now establishment R’s want citizenship for illegals. You can’t beat Santa Claus with amnesty.”

In an email, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s spokesman Rory Cooper punted on the GOP’s specific plans for reform by reiterating the need for the Presidents’ leadership and, tellingly, referred to a Republican-backed STEM Visa program that would make it easier to keep immigrants with degrees in science and engineering—a proposal that, while good, is mostly unrelated to Latino immigration. Perhaps coincidentally, though, Cooper referred to the President’s having been “appropriately challenged ... by Univision” for failing to take the initiative on immigration reform. Clearly the Republicans have the station on their radar, but as Ramos put it to me, if Romney’s recent comments attributing Latinos’ support for Obama to “gifts” are any guide, the GOP has a lot to learn. “To suggest that Latinos voted for Obama because he gave the ‘gift’ of amnesty clearly signifies that [Romney] doesn’t get it. If that is case with rest of the party, they are deeply in trouble.”