december cover

Dear President Obama
and Governor Romney,

I’ve finally figured it out. It’s taken me a while to see beyond the cosmetic differences, but I see now that---once you get past the party labels, political rhetoric and campaign promises that neither of you intends to keep---the two of you are basically the same person.

Both of you are products of Harvard Law School. Both of you are corporate-friendly, establishment figures who are often challenged by the true believers within your respective parties as not sufficiently committed to the cause or loyal to the base. Both of you are driven by the desire to broaden your support by reaching out to voters at the other end of the spectrum, and both of you are willing to turn yourselves inside out to accomplish that. Both of you are prone to play it safe by avoiding touchy subjects or unconventional positions. Both of you are known for governing from the center, and shunning the extremes of your respective parties to the point of frustrating and antagonizing people who would normally be among your strongest supporters. And both of you are out to break barriers and make history by being the first this or the first that, and along the way you have had to battle the fear, ignorance and prejudices that go with the territory.

But nowhere are you, the two major 2012 presidential candidates, more similar than when it comes to your relationship to the Latino community and your shifting positions on issues that matter most to Latino voters. First things first. As neither of you probably know but as your researchers should have told you, according to stacks of polls and surveys, these issues are consistently defined as the economy, jobs, education, and health care. When it comes to issues

that matter to Latinos, those are the big four. Ultimately, it always comes back to what we value: our ability to work and provide for our families, the hope that our children will use the educational system to springboard to better lives, and the resources to ensure that our elderly can grow old with dignity and have their medical needs met.

But there’s also a fifth issue, a wild card that---depending on what’s happening in the public debate (not to mention the wacky and wicked state of Arizona)---has been known to float to the top of the deck.

You guessed it: immigration. In ways that no one could have predicted a few years ago, this issue has become a threshold concern for many Latino voters. It’s not because most of us are directly impacted by what happens to the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants living in the United States; the vast majority of the estimated 52 million Latinos in this country are here legally. And it’s not because we all want to make it easier for people to come to this country legally; many of us are fine with the immigration system the way it is, flaws and all.

It’s because how you two handle this hot potato of an issue tells us everything we need to know about you as politicians and human beings. It tells us about your character, honesty and integrity---or lack thereof. It tells us whether you intend to give Latino voters the one thing we demand above all else from anyone who wants our support: respeto. And given how disrespectfully you have each behaved over the last year or so, and the trickery you’ve used to convince Latinos that you’re a simpatico, the outlook is not encouraging.

Understand this. If you, President Obama, find support among Latinos for your work to secure health care reform, it won’t matter if they can’t get past your position on immigration. Likewise, Gov. Romney, it might be that many Latinos believe that you can fix the economy and create more jobs, but it won’t amount to much if they can’t get past your view on immigration. The issue is that important. Unfortunately for both of you, if we were giving out grades, immigration would be your worst subject. You would both flunk.

On the Democratic side of the ledger, consider an interview that you, President Obama, gave to radio talk show host Fernando Espuelas of Univision Radio in April 2012. When Espuelas noted the criticism that you have received from Latinos for failing to deliver immigration reform, you bristled and got defensive---as you often do in the face of criticism.

“Well, look,” you said. “I think it is important for everybody to remember that I have been four square behind comprehensive immigration reform from the time I was a U.S. Senator to my election as president and today. So, the issue has never been my full-throated support for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Mr. President, you’ve obviously forgotten that, while in the Senate, you supported---at the behest of organized labor---a series of “poison pill” amendments intended to kill bipartisan attempts at comprehensive immigration reform. And, as president, you failed to make reform a top priority, as you promised Latinos you would. Could those two be related?

In that same interview, you went on: “The challenge is to get it passed through Congress, which is ultimately who has to pass this law. We have strong support from the majority of Democrats. We have no support from Republicans.”

Mr. President, you may have support from a majority of Democrats in Congress, but it doesn’t appear to be “strong” support. For the four years that Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, from January 2007 to January 2011, comprehensive immigration reform was never a priority. Back then, Republicans weren’t driving the agenda.

You also said: “You’ve got some of the leading Republican candidates for president saying they would veto the DREAM Act, and members of Congress telling the same line. We couldn’t get any Republican votes for the DREAM Act when it came up a couple of years ago.”

That’s more memory failure. In December 2010, when Congress last took up the legislation that would give undocumented youth legal status if they joined the military or went to college, three Republican senators--- Richard Lugar of Indiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Robert Bennett of Utah---voted in favor of cloture to move the bill to a full vote. Lugar, as you know, was a co-sponsor of the bill.

Finally, Mr. President, you said: “My hope is that after this election, partly because of a strong Latino vote, a message will be sent that we need to, once again, be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, that we’ve got to be respectful of folks who are here, who are doing the right thing, trying to raise their families, oftentimes have kids who were born here in the United States, and they need to be given a chance, a pathway, so that they can have a strong legal status in this country.”

Wow. This is new. So you want to be “respectful” to immigrant families. Great. I’m glad to hear it. This sort of thing starts with no longer dividing them up with a punch-drunk deportation policy that targets parents and breadwinners and tries to run up the numbers of removals as if there were a monthly quota for immigrant apprehensions---something that immigration officials have long denied.

Meanwhile, Gov. Romney, your position on immigration is just as confusing and unfocused. You spent the entire 2012 Republican primary pretty much how you spent most of the 2008 Republican primary---demonizing your opponents as soft on illegal immigration with tough rhetoric and promises you probably don’t expect to keep. You did it to John McCain in 2008, and to Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry in 2012.

Did it ever occur to you when in the midst of those attacks on your rivals just how bad you were coming across to Latino voters, who are more sensitive than most voters to politicians who like to pander to nativist mobs? That’s because it’s been our experience that, once an elected official gets to “anti-immigrant,” it’s just a short walk to “anti-Hispanic.” And that is often how you came across.

In your worldview, judging from the comments you made during the GOP primary debates, you must think that all illegal immigrants come to the United States solely for handouts, freebies, and benefits. No, no, no. Governor, you know better than that. As you well know, they mostly come for opportunity and to do jobs that Americans won’t do---like landscaping for wealthy and influential residents of Belmont, MA.

You remember Belmont, Governor. That’s where you lived when you were the head executive of the Bay State, and where a landscaping crew that employed illegal immigrants did your lawn and continued to do your lawn even after the Boston Globe did a front-page story about its hiring practices.

It’s insulting that someone who has himself benefited so directly from illegal immigrant labor would play dumb about one of the central truths of the immigration debate---that Americans wouldn’t have so much illegal immigration if Americans didn’t hire so many illegal immigrants.

It’s also insulting, Governor Romney, that you’ve brought your trademark knack for flip-flopping to the immigration issue. Having spent months attacking your opponents for supporting proposals that would allow the undocumented to pay in-state university tuition or work legally in the United States, you went to Miami in January 2012 and told a roomful of Hispanic conservatives that you support giving illegal immigrants “temporary worker permits.”

Under the Romney plan, as you explained it, the undocumented could remain in the U.S. to work for a certain period of time. After the time is up, the immigrants could “self-deport” but (and this is important) the government wouldn’t make them leave. Now, that sounds an awful lot like what you like to call “amnesty.” Only in this case, it sounded more like pandering to the constituency of Florida Latinos.

And while we’re counting insults, let’s not forget that you, Governor Romney, touted your endorsements by individuals who are despised in the Latino community such as Kris Kobach, the author of SB1070, the Arizona immigration law that amounts to racial profiling, and former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who in 1994 exploited anti-immigrant anxiety and anti-Latino bigotry to get re-elected.

It’s little wonder that one of your primary opponents, Newt Gingrich, flat out accused you of being “anti-immigrant” because of your attacks on him and Gov. Perry.

What irony. Who would have thought the presidential candidate with the biggest hurdle to overcome with Hispanic voters would be the one whose father was born in Mexico? Or that it would be the one who, in a 2005 interview with the Boston Globe, declared that it was not “practical or economic for the country’’ to deport all illegal immigrants because “these people contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society” – and then never said anything like that ever again.<

Gentlemen, even your so-called Hispanic outreach efforts are alike. Both of you make a big deal of the fact that you’re supposedly pursuing Hispanic voters. And yet, given your awful records on immigration, whom do you think you’re fooling? All you two offer are empty promises, flip-flops, half-truths, and accusations lobbed at one another.

Mr. President, in an April 2012 interview with Spanish-language television network Univision, you promised once again that you would pursue immigration reform if re-elected. Actually what you said was: “I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term.”

What’s Spanish for déjà vu? We have been here before, Mr. President. Latinos have played Charlie Brown to your version of Lucy and the football. Let’s remember that in 2008, you promised to make immigration reform a top priority of your first term. That never happened. Whether you do anything or not, you want credit from Hispanics for trying, even when you’re not trying.

“The challenge we’ve got on immigration reform is very simple,” you said in the same interview. “I’ve got a majority of Democrats who are prepared to vote for it, and I’ve got no Republicans who are prepared to vote for it.”

You’re right. That would be simple, if it were really happening. But the reality is more complicated. There are no good guys and bad guys, only bands of politicians putting their own interests first to the detriment of Hispanics. You may recall, Mr. President---because you were in the Senate at the time---that the last time that Congress debated immigration reform compromise bills, in 2006 and 2007, there were almost two-dozen Republican senators who voted in favor of reform. That was not because they loved immigrants but because the GOP loves business, and business loves immigrants and their dedication and work ethic.

And where were you during all this, Mr. President? As a junior Senator from Illinois, you went along with efforts by fellow Democrats to kill reform by inserting “poison pill” amendments to do away with any talk of guest workers---an essential ingredient in the immigration reform recipe. You even sponsored a couple of those amendments. Thanks for nothing.

None of this is surprising. It’s always been the case that, in the immigration debate, you put union interests before Latino interests. And unions don’t like the idea of guest workers because the people who run these institutions labor under the delusion that U.S. workers would like the kinds of jobs that go to foreign workers. Guess what? They would not.

Meanwhile, Governor Romney, your recent efforts to kiss and make up with Hispanics are just as hollow. Don’t forget you have a lot to make up for. During the primaries, you pledged to veto the DREAM Act (which would give legal status to illegal immigrants who go to college or join the military), called Arizona’s immigration law a model for the nation, and insisted that you would have voted against the confirmation of the only Latina to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. It was almost like you were going out of your way to lose Hispanic support, and you did a good job of that.

Now, with your kinder and gentler makeover, you’re trying to distance yourself from Kobach (calling him a mere “supporter” while he refers to himself as a “adviser”), talking about how Republicans need to reach out to Hispanics, and filling key roles in your campaign with individuals who are well known to support comprehensive immigration reform.

I’m talking about Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, who you hired as a senior adviser to help with “messaging” and “overall strategy.” As a vocal advocate for Hispanic outreach by the GOP who served as an adviser to George W. Bush when the White House was trumpeting comprehensive immigration reform, Gillespie is clearly someone who understands that the Republican Party can’t survive in the long-term without Hispanic support. Governor Romney, do you understand that? It’s not clear you do.

On the one hand, according to NBC News, you were overheard telling supporters at an April fundraiser in Palm Beach, FL, that “we have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party” because otherwise it “spells doom for us.” You even told the crowd that a “Republican DREAM Act”---which is sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and offers a pathway to legal status but not a yellow brick road to citizenship---might do the trick.

But on the other, you often seem completely indifferent about whether or not you get any significant amount of Latino support. You don’t want to work for it, or even ask for it. And that’s a pretty good way to ensure that you don’t get much of it. Don’t get me wrong. As I said, immigration is just one issue among many that matter to Latinos. We care about the same issues that other Americans do. And, above all, we want a better future for our children.

Tell us what you plan to do to bring accountability to public schools, keep the air clean, develop other sources of energy, protect the homeland against future terrorist attacks, secure the borders, further reform the health care system in a way that brings down costs, and address a host of other pressing matters. Tell us all that and more. We’re interested. But unless you get immigration right, we can’t move on to the other subjects. And the shame of it is that, up to now, you’ve both gotten it wrong. Totally wrong.

Many Latinos talk about how they have to hold their noses and choose the “lesser of two evils” and how this election is really, for Latinos, a choice between terrible and horrible. To tell you the truth, given how badly you’ve treated us, given what you’ve said and done, and given the contempt you’ve shown to a community that deserves to be treated with respect, I wouldn’t vote for either one of you. And I can’t imagine why any self-respecting Latino would.


Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a CNN contributor, a commentator for National Public Radio, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a contributor to and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam). You can contact him at