On a recent Florida evening, hundreds of Republicans gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables to discuss a growing concern for the party: attracting Hispanic voters as the 2012 presidential race begins to heat up. You don’t have to be very perceptive to know that many Hispanics in the U.S see the Republican Party as the enemy. It was Republicans who passed anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona last year. It was Republican senators who made up the majority of votes that defeated the Dream Act, ending the hopes of 2 million Hispanic immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children by their parents. It is Republicans who want to amend the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the U.S., in order to deprive children of undocumented immigrants that right.

Understandably, Republicans have an uphill battle ahead when it comes to courting Hispanic voters. And their work has begun at events like the gathering in Coral Gables, where the usual speeches were delivered on how, despite the fact that they vote overwhelmingly Democratic, Hispanics are closer to Republicans when it comes to political ideology. Speakers pointed out that traditional values, opposition to abortion and a dislike of big, meddling government are things that Hispanics and Republicans agree on. Criticisms were also vented about President Barack Obama’s unfulfilled promise to deliver a plan for comprehensive immigration reform within his first year in office. And Democrats were lambasted because the party takes for granted the assumption that Hispanics will always choose them instead of Republicans in the voting booth. But the mood at the gathering was focused more on middle-of-the-road pleasantries than pressure. People agreed that the Hispanic vote was impor!

tant, but the matter seemed to lack urgency.

Then it was Jeb Bush’s turn to speak. At the podium, the former Florida governor said what no one at the gathering wanted to hear: that it would simply be “incredibly stupid” for the Republican Party to ignore Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the American population.

His words, his urgency, led to a huge, heavy, painful silence.

No one at the political gathering expected such a severe statement — especially from Bush. The brother of one former president and son of another, Bush is on every list of potential presidential candidates for 2012. And he has a deep knowledge of Latin America, is married to a Mexican-born woman — Columba — and is fully bilingual. With this in mind, I asked Bush during an interview with him that evening what he thought Republicans needed to do to win the Hispanic vote.

“We need to make a great effort,” he told me in Spanish. “It is hard to imagine that the Republican — or the conservative philosophy — can become the philosophy of the majority if we do not attract more Hispanics to our side. It is stupid not to try. That is why I said it.”

Numbers are not on Republicans’ side. In last year’s congressional elections, despite the lingering effects of the economic downturn in the U.S. and a general tendency against Democrats, Republicans were able to garner only 38 percent of the Hispanic vote. (But even this was an improvement, since the party has generally won only about a third of the Hispanic electorate’s support in past elections.)

Simply put, if Republicans cannot win the Hispanic vote, they cannot win. “Twenty years from now, Hispanics will decide the elections, not only in Texas, Florida and California, but also in Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota and places like that,” Bush told me.

And there is no doubt that what makes it so tough for Republicans to gain the support of many Hispanics is the illegal-immigration issue in the U.S. Bush knows this; he supports offering a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation. But he is almost alone in this regard — and if he does not change his party’s stance, it will be almost impossible for Republicans to sway Hispanic voters away from the Democrats. Everything else is debatable. But not this.

Bush and the Republicans insist that before any immigration reform can be accomplished, the U.S. must secure the border with Mexico. “It is not a matter of just having a wall,” Bush said. “We are not able to control who comes and who doesn’t come to our country — that’s ridiculous. That’s stupid. A great country must have that capacity.”

But it is simply impossible to have full control over a 2,000-mile border — it cannot be fully sealed by force or through building a wall. If Republicans are waiting until the border is fully secure before they embark on immigration reform, they will be waiting the rest of their lives: As long as Mexicans on the other side are only earning $5 a day, and there are jobs in the United States that pay 10 times more, they will come across. This is an economic problem, so what is needed is an economic solution, not a wall.

After my interview with Bush, I returned to the gathering to see attendees exchange fond embraces and warm farewells, and all left with the absolute conviction that, in order to win back the White House and future elections, they need to win the Hispanic vote. Urgently.

But their problem — and it’s not a small one — is that they don’t know how to do that yet.

By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(February 21, 2011)

Previous ArticleNext Article
Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”