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posted: 1/24/2013 9:14 AM

Hispanic Republicans walk a fine line

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When you're a Hispanic Republican, the immigration debate comes with both obstacles and opportunities.

This is true with two lawmakers who are among the most important people to watch in the debate that is about to play out in Congress: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. These rising superstars in the GOP need to find the sweet spot on immigration, where they could get something done without getting done in.

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First, there are the obstacles. The media will often play "gotcha" and try to trap Rubio and Cruz between reaching out to Latinos and toeing a party line on immigration that so far has repelled Latinos.

Both the right and the left will view them with suspicion. Latinos will see them as trying to please Republicans, while Republicans will suspect that their true allegiance lies with other Latinos. Both sides will wait for them to disappoint, and they will immediately pounce when that happens.

Just ask Rubio. Last year, when President Obama offered deferred action to undocumented students brought here by their parents, Rubio called it a good first step. A conservative radio talk show host in San Diego who is known for anti-immigrant rants declared: "That's it, I'm done with Rubio."

But Rubio isn't done with immigration. He plans to introduce a bill that gives illegal immigrants a path to legal status without citizenship -- and perhaps offer the citizenship option to undocumented students.

Still, for Hispanic Republicans, being targeted comes with the territory. And since they've been put on the defensive, it's hard for them to find a nuanced and thoughtful approach to immigration.

And there is the opportunity. At the moment, the newly sworn-in Cruz is doing what Rubio did in his first two years in the Senate -- trying to keep immigration at arm's length. It didn't work for Rubio, and it won't work for Cruz. The Republican Party is counting on both these leaders to help it mend fences with Latino voters, and that road goes right through the immigration debate. There is no detour.

In a recent interview, Cruz told me that -- for him and his family -- the issue is personal. His father, Rafael, left Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power.

"We need to remain a nation that doesn't just welcome but that celebrates legal immigrants who come here seeking to pursue the American dream," he said. "All across the state of Texas, I have told my father's story thousands of times. My dad has been my hero my entire life. But what I find most extraordinary about his story is how commonplace it is. Every one of us -- whether it's us, or our parents, or our grandparents, or our great-grandparents -- we all are the children of those who fled oppression seeking freedom. I think that's the most fundamental DNA of what it means to be an American -- to value freedom and opportunity above everything else."

For Cruz, step one is "securing the border," but he thinks that both parties are too busy trying to demagogue the issue to get even this done. Still, he seems to understand the curious paradox of America -- a country of immigrants that, truth be told, has often been hostile to newer immigrants.

"Resistance to immigrants is not a new phenomenon," Cruz said. "It's been present in the United States, and present everywhere really, for centuries. You go back 100 years, and go to the New York City, and you'd see signs in restaurants that said: 'No Irish and No Dogs.' Then you had a big immigration wave from Ireland, and there was the same sense of fear that we sometimes see manifested here."

Indeed, it's all about fear. We don't just need new laws. We also need a new mindset. Americans can't fix the immigration system until they overcome their fear of immigrants.

On the left, organized labor has an economic fear that immigrants take jobs and lower wages. On the right, nativists have a cultural fear that immigrants don't assimilate and expect Americans to lose their language and national identity. That's the power of immigrants -- bridging the political divide one scary story at a time.

Rubio and Cruz have their work cut out for them. But, I suspect, they also have a lot to offer. Let's see it.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

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