The opening night of the Republican National Convention saw some vigorous waving of the immigrant flag. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley started off her speech by stating that she is, “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants.” Her colleague Bob McDonnell of Virginia also invoked his more distant immigrant roots in referencing his Irish grandfather’s passage through Ellis Island 100 years ago. Like McConnell, Texas Republican Senate candidate, Ted Cruz referenced his Irish roots, while also highlighting his father’s more recent Cuban immigrant experience. Cruz recounted how when his father came to America, “él no tenía nada, pero tenía corazón (He had nothing, but he had heart.)” And Cruz wasn’t the only one to sprinkle in a little Spanish as a nod to his immigrant roots. On Wednesday night, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez reminded convention goers that “El sueño Americano es tener éxito” (success is the American Dream).
But the one that took the cake was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Like in his speech announcing his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination earlier this year, Santorum framed his speech around his Italian immigrant grandfather. More specifically, he focused on his grandfather’s hands, which had been worn hard through decades of work in a Pennsylvania coalmine. It was his immigrant forefather’s risk of coming to a new land, work ethnic, and dedication to his family that allowed Rick Santorum to stand at the podium of Tuesday night’s RNC convention.
The story about Rick Santorum’s grandfather is indeed a powerful and touching narrative, as are the immigrant stories of Cruz, McDonnell, Haley, and the millions of other Americans whose ancestors were not native to this land. Referencing one’s immigrant roots is a short cut for signaling hard work and determination. It’s about the American Dream, a concept folks from both sides of the aisle can agree on. Agreeing what do to about those folks who come today to seek out that same American Dream is another story.
On Tuesday, night the Republicans stopped short. Beyond their immigrant narratives they did not discuss any substantive policy related to immigration. Not even a restrictive one!
The implicit message in all of these narratives is that there are good immigrants and bad immigrants. My immigrant folks were the good ones, but the ones today are the bad ones that we should keep out. It’s almost as if the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free that the Statue of Liberty calls forth have an RSVP date excluding the most recent wave of Latino immigration.
The problem is that these Republican leaders from Tuesday night, like many of their colleagues, ignore the fact that the immigration pull factor is the same today as it was 100 years ago. Immigrants locate to a new land for a reason; there is demand for them. Why leave your loved ones, risk it all and become a stranger just for the fun of it?
There is one crucial difference between McDonnell’s immigrant grandfather and Latino immigrants today. At the turn of the 20th Century, immigration policy could accommodate immigrants who were pulled to the United States (of course there is the exception of the Chinese exclusion Acts from the late 1800s, but that’s a topic for another day). Over the last century, immigration policy has become more restrictive in terms of legal immigration, but laissez-faire toward illegal immigration. Rather than overhaul immigration policy to reflect the economic needs of the United States and allow for more open immigration, the government has allowed labor needs to be met through a blind eye toward illegal immigration.
Enough of this teasing! If you’re going to talk about immigration, talk about it in terms of reflecting our economic demand reality with policies. Nostalgic immigrant rhetoric bypasses the theoretical structures of human migratory movement and fails miserably at addressing the here and now of immigration. There is no doubt that immigration reform is a messy thing. It always has been and will continue to be. But if we are to take Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan at his word that Republicans will not duck the tough issues, then Republicans better get started on their blueprint for an effective immigration policy overhaul.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.