Mitt Romney’s new Spanish-language ad is cliché to the point of absurdity. Narrated by Mitt’s youngest son, Craig, it packs an impressive amount of feel-good stock footage into thirty seconds. A little girl grins, the sun flashing in her eyes, on a tire swing. Silhouetted against the sunset, a man raises an American flag while a youngster salutes. A smiling family enjoys a bountiful meal around the dinner table. “The United States represents liberty and opportunity, where anything is possible,” Craig says. He explains that his father has lived those American values, and a succession of Hispanic politicians talk up Romney’s plans for jobs and national-security. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, looks into the camera and says: “Romney cree en nosotros” (Romney believes in us). When the whole thing is over, the viewer is supposed to feel warm and fuzzy about Mitt—but instead, I was left asking: What about immigration?
And that’s what makes this otherwise cookie-cutter ad so bizarre. The spot is unremarkable but for its omission of the most important, high-profile issue facing Hispanics. That omission raises the question of why Romney would bother to release such an ad in the first place—if he ignored the issue in his English-language spots, hardly anybody would notice, but its absence in a high-profile Spanish-language release, just weeks before the Florida primary, is striking.
Romney has two good reasons for avoiding the issue. First, it seems the ad isn’t aimed at Hispanics generally, but at Cuban-Americans specifically. Nearly 70 percent of all Cuban-Americans live in Florida (where the GOP primary will take place on January 31), the ad specifically mentions national security (a subtle nod to Castro), and the three politicians who appear in the ad are all Cuban-Americans. And Cuban-Americans are more heavily Republican than other Hispanic groups—all the more reason why, especially in a primary season, they are more likely to be the intended target for Romney’s Spanish-language outreach.
But there’s a broader reason why Romney can’t mention immigration, even in a Spanish-language ad: He has little to say to Hispanics on the issue that they’re likely to want to hear. Romney has taken a hard line and harsh tone on immigration. He uses the ugly term “illegals” in GOP debates, has promised to veto the DREAM Act, and recently accepted the endorsement of anti-immigration superstar Kris Kobach--the Kansas Secretary of State and architect of the toughest state immigration laws in the country (he co-authored the notorious laws in Arizona and Alabama). In fact, Kobach is scheduled to appear alongside Romney today as the candidate campaigns in South Carolina.
This makes Romney particularly unpalatable to a demographic Republicans claim to covet. The GOP’s handwringing over the Latino vote has been well-documented. More forward-thinking elements in the party realize that while hot-blooded rhetoric excites its white conservative base, the same rhetoric tends to alienate Hispanics. The long-term consequences of that dynamic could be damaging for Republicans, so in national politics, the party tries to woo Hispanics by stressing economic and cultural issues while downplaying immigration. But the effectiveness of this strategy has obvious limits: Eventually, immigration must be addressed.
The limits of this approach are also revealed by the experience of Republican officials at the state level. It is telling that in Texas, two successive governors with strong conservative credentials—George W. Bush and Rick Perry—are nonetheless ideological heretics on the issue of immigration. It’s hard to explain this away by accusing Bush and Perry of simple ideological squishiness. It’s much more plausible that politically organized and engaged Latino populations in Texas ultimately forced a certain degree of realism on their conservative leaders. That includes not only the way politicians deal with entries into the United States, but the way they deal with established immigrant populations. Even if the border issue were neutralized—and illegal entries have plummeted in recent years—immigration politics are still dicey for conservatives when it comes to the question of how we should treat populations within our borders. And here, Romney still disappoints and alienates. His promise to veto the DREAM Act, in fact, is a slap not at illegal immigrants, but at their children—people who grew up in America, who know no other home, but whose status is in question through no fault of their own.
With all this in mind, the presumptive Republican candidate’s conspicuous omission when speaking to Hispanic audiences is easy to understand. The Pew Hispanic Center regularly asks Latinos in the U.S.: “Regardless of your own immigration or citizenship status, how much, if at all, do you worry that you, a family member, or a close friend could be deported?” In 2010, 52 percent of all Latinos answered “A lot” or “some.” In other words, this is not a group likely to greet hard-line immigration positions—on deportation, education, or labor—with thankful applause. So why bring it up at all?
Nathan Pippenger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.