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updated: 12/6/2010 11:06 AM

How GOP could win over Latinos

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Republican elected officials could use coaching on how to talk about the immigration issue and, just as importantly, how not to talk about it.

There's a huge need. When talking about immigration, some Republicans deserve encouragement. Some deserve scoldings. And some deserve a trip to the woodshed.

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The folks in the last camp don't realize that every time they talk about immigration, they succeed in repelling Latino voters and send them into the waiting arms of Democrats, who generally proceed to neglect or manipulate them.

It's terrible for everyone. Republicans antagonize a constituency that, because of its conservative values, might otherwise be in play. Democrats become complacent and lazy because all they have to do to win the Latino vote is advertise the fact that they're not Republicans. And Latinos, despite being one of the fastest growing segments of the electorate, remain marginalized.

Instead of trying to repair the breach with Latinos, many Republicans take the easy way out and deny that there is one. They tell themselves there is nothing they can do short of turning themselves inside out and embracing the idea of an open border. Since they're not willing to do that, they do nothing. Some might suggest the problem is one of communication, insisting that they're not getting the message out and that's why their Latino outreach efforts aren't bearing fruit.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Republicans don't have to open the border; they only have to open their minds. They don't have to condone or reward illegal activity, or abandon the idea that the United States has, like any other country, the right to enforce its borders and protect its sovereignty. And they don't have to throw up their hands and accept the fact that the United States is home to millions of illegal immigrants and there is little anyone can do about it. They just have to be careful that they don't come across as anti-Latino.

As for the message not getting out, Republicans needn't worry. It's getting out all right. The problem is, it's a bad message. Many conservatives seem to think that the immigration system is broken because we're taking in an inferior class of people. They think illegal immigrants are invading the country, that they're not assimilating, that they're devouring benefits, that they're committing crimes and bringing down our standard of living.

The message to Latinos from some elements of the GOP couldn't be clearer: "We don't like you. We don't value you. We don't respect you. Now, go and vote Republican."

The GOP has a lot to learn about Latinos, and about immigration. Republicans need to learn to criticize illegal immigration without attacking or demonizing the immigrants themselves. They need to learn to come down hard on any GOP elected official who so much as flirts with nativist or racist rhetoric. And they need to break with a tradition in this country that goes back more than 230 years and stop thinking of immigrants as inferior to previous waves.

If Republicans want to talk about immigration, they had better do it in the right way. They could stress the need for secure borders and argue that, in the post-9/11 era, it would be foolhardy to take a lax approach to those who are coming into this country. They could talk about personal responsibility and how every immigrant who enters the United States has an obligation to do so legally or, if they're already in this country illegally and plan to stay, to do whatever they can to get right with the law. They could pound away on the concept of law and order and explain how rules have to be followed. And they could appeal to the notion of fairness and insist that ignoring or condoning the infraction of those who came illegally dishonors the memory of those who came legally.

I imagine that most Latinos wouldn't mind this narrative. It's high-minded and race-neutral. And they wouldn't be cast as villains.

When Republicans talk about immigration, they don't have to surrender their principles or be something they're not. They just have to mind their manners and, for their own survival in a country that is becoming more Latino by the day, stop alienating people who might otherwise join the party.

• Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2010, The Washington Post Writers Group

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