Now that President Obama is reviving comprehensive immigration reform, there was one thing I noticed when the nuts-and-bolts process began in Washington: I don’t see any Mexican-American politicians leading the legislative charge in Congress.
Don’t get me wrong, the country’s largest Latino subgroup (Mexican-Americans account for 63 percent of all U.S. Latinos and 10 percent of the entire U.S. population) is well represented in the push for immigration reform. Mexican-Americans have made great strides on both the state and national levels. That makes sense, since the country’s broken immigration system is a real issue to many people of Mexican descent (just see what happened to activist leader Erika Andiola’s family last week.) From MALDEF to NCLR to the DREAMers, there are prominent Mexican-Americans fighting for immigration reform every day. Yet in the halls of Congress, who are the most visible and prominent members heading up the legislative debate?
The answer: Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican Democratic congressman from Illinois, and Marco Rubio, a Republican Cuban senator from Florida.
To some, seeing a Puerto Rican and a Cuban as two of Congress’ most public voices of an issue dominated by a 1,933-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico might not make sense. I actually have a few friends who would be quick to point out that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, so immigration doesn’t matter to them, and well, Cubans, you know those Miami Cubans, they got theirs in the 1960s after Fidel Castro showed up.
Quite frankly, some of my friends are wrong.
Gutierrez, one of President Obama’s most vocal immigration critics, has been consistent in promoting immigration reform during the Administration’s first term. The Chicago Democrat has made sure to turn immigration into the civil rights issue of our times, from his public appearances, his visits to Alabama, getting arrested outside the White House, and even using social media memes.
The 59-year-old Gutierrez is seen by some as a national Latino leader. Even though he is Puerto Rican, Gutierrez’s district is overwhelmingly of Mexican descent. If immigration matters to his constituents, it matters to Gutierrez, and his efforts to keep this issue alive, even to the point of disagreeing with his party’s leader, should be applauded.
Unlike Gutierrez, Rubio arrived to the national immigration debate late in the game. The reason was practical, if poorly thought out: the Republican Party needed to become more palatable to U.S. Latino voters during the election season. I can just imagine the following scenario last year at Romney HQ: “Quick, we are sinking with Latino voters. Let’s get Rubio to push a new DREAM Act lite bill.”
Of course that didn’t happen, but it does speak to the uneasiness that many U.S. Latino voters felt about Rubio. It was just a token move, yet I think that Rubio still cared deeply about immigration reform, and when faced with another opportunity to change the tone of the GOP, the Florida senator would try to seize it. So far, he has, although Rubio has to know that the final bill needs to include a path to citizenship.
Yet Rubio faces a bigger challenge. Not only does he have to get his fellow nativist Republicans in line when it comes to immigration reform (two examples: Iowa Rep. Steven King and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions), Rubio also has to ensure that a bipartisan victory will get the GOP major points with U.S. Latino voters, and Mexican-American voters in particular.
If Gutierrez has become an adopted mexicano, Rubio is still the cubano outsider viewed with great skepticism. Will that change? It will have to, if Rubio is thinking about the White House in 2016. Being the GOP voice of immigration reform is a big start, but connecting with Mexican-American voters will take so much more than that.
Maybe Rubio should create some social media memes calling out the nativists in his own party. That would be a great move.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.