Twelve times. When asked what he would do about undocumented immigrants without green cards who were otherwise living here as productive members of society, Governor Romney said the word “illegal” in one variation or another twelve times. By contrast, President Obama used the word once.
The words we use when speaking about a topic are a powerful expression of the sentiments we associate with that subject, and when the Presidential candidates were asked to clarify their commitments on immigration, there could not be a clearer contrast between the sentiments of the President and Governor Romney.
At one point, Romney described undocumented immigrants as “undocumented illegals.” Who knows what he was trying to say, but it seems clear that in his mind he has framed undocumented immigrants around a narrative of illegitimacy, despite his failed attempt to use softer language.
As I tell my students, legitimacy is the soft underbelly of democracy. Without legitimacy, democratic societies are not very good at protecting human rights, and nowhere in our history do we prove this more than in our treatment of those who have not “earned” citizenship.
There are tens of thousands of people right now, sitting in detention centers awaiting deportation without access to legal representation. The basic human right of representation, inalienable as it is claimed, can be run roughshod without the privileges of legitimacy.
This is the fundamental problem Latinos have with Mitt Romney. When he thinks of Latinos, he does not speak to them, he speaks at them as outsiders. In his mind, despite the precursor in the question by the young lady that the undocumented immigrants were otherwise productive members of society, Romney could not help but discuss them as illegitimate objects.
This is similar to Mitt Romney’s views about poor people. In what is perhaps the most bizarre answer I have heard in a Presidential debate, the candidates were asked about gun control, and Romney’s first reaction was to talk about single mothers.
The GOP perspective on social ills is to treat symptoms as if they were the disease. Illegal immigration isn’t treated as a symptom of our insatiable thirst for cheap labor, our ruthless foreign policy towards Latin countries or our systemic barriers to assimilation, but is defined around a narrative of criminal invaders from another world.
And this leads to punishing solutions. The so-called successful welfare reform of the 1990′s is measured by how many people are on welfare. As if the problem isn’t that people need welfare, but that they are simply on it. And while the reduction of the welfare rolls in this era was seen as a great success by the GOP, it did nothing to reduce poverty.
Similar to immigration, the problem isn’t that we have a system that is incoherent and inconsistent with reality, and has brutal results for Latino families, but that we have “these people” who are illegals running around the country.
This is a bad sign for Latinos who were listening to Governor Romney’s immigration answer, because from this perspective, Latinos are not people with social problems that requires attention; they are the social problem. This is beyond a policy problem that Latinos face with the GOP, and the GOP continues to fail to understand the underlying distrust this creates among Latinos towards the Republican Party.
After weeks of campaigning for a general election, there had been rumblings that both candidates had so far failed to address the immigration issue. It was a foreseeable topic that would arise in the last debate on domestic issues before the election. Yet despite this, Mitt Romney still has not learned that what Latinos are most looking for in a President they can vote for is someone who sees them through a lens of respect. His answer was loud and clear that he does not, twelve times.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.