In an election where a billionaire demagogue can vault to first place in the polls by promising to deport millions of immigrants, it's fair to wonder if the establishment favorite who once proposed a path to citizenship can beat him for the Republican nomination. That may be the biggest challenge facing Marco Rubio today.
Right-wing obsession with undocumented workers from Mexico has been waxing and waning for decades. It is sometimes attached to economic insecurity but more often it seems to be the result of free floating anxiety that isn't attached to any particular circumstance. During the Bush years, before the crash, it bubbled up in communities around the nation which had little experience with Latinos who were branching out from the traditional migration pattern to places where new work was available. There were a number of stories done around 2005 about the town of Herndon, Virginia, where a militia had grown up to defend the town against illegal immigrants:
Bill explains that he "slid into the Minutemen" because he was disturbed by the way his neighborhood was changing, and the other Minutemen standing with him nod in agreement. "Dormitory-style homes" have popped up on their streets, Bill says, and the residents come and go at strange hours. Their neighbors' children are intimidated and no longer like to play outside, in part because "we've got about 17 cars coming and going from our neighbors' houses." Matt, another Minuteman who lives in nearby Manassas, claims that the police have busted prostitution rings operating out of nearby properties...Even on the coldest mornings, more than 50 workers often convene at the 7-11, and Bill judges that sometimes only 10 or 20 get hired. "When," he asks me, "is it ever a good thing for 40 men to hang out together?" ["Outside In: The Minutemen Are More Mainstream Than You Think," The New Republic, November, 2005]
(I always thought that was a funny quote coming from a guy who had joined a militia.)
But this was a big story 10 years ago -- immigrants were gathering in our small towns and suburbs and changing the culture with their strange language and dirty ways. To people who live in the Southwest or Florida or any big city, it was a bizarre concept. Even if it's contentious for economic or political reasons, immigrants are part of the fabric of life in those places. But it was a culture shock to a lot of folks who hadn't dealt with it before. And they didn't blame the Democrats --- they blamed George W. Bush:
The retired social studies teacher said she got involved because houses in her neighborhood had become packed immigrant dormitories. She suspects that most tenants in the rooming houses, including the one next door, are illegal. She deals with roosters crowing and men urinating in the yard, loud parties and empty beer cans dumped outside. She fears it's driving down the value of her house.
"I'm angry," said the 60-year-old widow. She said the fight against illegal immigration was deeply personal and broadly political. "George Bush is in it for the Hispanic vote, and we're on the receiving end," she said. "That's not fair. Before, everybody looked out for everybody else; no one locked doors," she said of her neighborhood. "Now we all have security systems."
Jeff Talley, 45, an airplane maintenance worker who lives across the street from Bonieskie, also joined the Minuteman chapter. "When you start messing with the value of people's houses, people get really upset," he said. As Talley sees it, illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans Â whom it would cost companies more to employ and that will have long-term effects on American society.
"There's a disappearing middle class," said Talley, a Republican. "George Bush is a huge disappointment to this country. The Republican Party used to be for ordinary people, but no more."
I bring all this up just to preface what's led up to the current predicament in the Republican Party and their fraught relationship with Latinos. There was a time when the party thought it had made substantial inroads with that community and were hopeful they would be able to gain the loyalty of enough of them to be able to compete nationally in a world in which whites are no longer a majority. It didn't work and reading that piece about the Hernden Minutemen you can see how it happened.
The issue continued to vex Republicans throughout the Obama administration as they found themselves caught in the cross-current of changing demographics and a base that was growing more and more hostile to immigrants. GOP politicians who had championed comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship -- a mainstream position with both parties -- were pressured to abandon their position. Not that it really mattered if they did. Anyone who had once advocated for reform was now seen as a conservative movement heretic, never to be trusted again.
This issue finally boiled over in 2014 when the Republican majority leader of the House, Eric Cantor, unexpectedly lost his seat in a primary to an anti-immigrant Tea Party upstart, David Brat, a novice politician heavily promoted by national conservative talk radio. Stars like Laura Ingraham had been pushing the anti-immigration line for quite some time and homed in on Cantor as a perfect example of a squishy establishment sell-out. Not that Cantor actually was a particularly immigrant-friendly politician. He had tepidly supported legalization of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, and once said that he thought immigrants should be allowed to enlist in the military “in principle,” but voted against allowing them to serve. That was all it took. As far as talk radio was concerned he was a dead man walking.
The presidential race features a politician with an even more checkered history on this very contentious issue. In fact, Senator Marco Rubio has been all over the map. He too started out in 2010 as an anti-immigration Tea Party candidate. Once in the Senate he joined the notorious "Gang of Eight" which developed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship (also known as "amnesty" which has become a code word for "the end of the world as we know it.") Since joining the race for president he has walked back his support in every way, even saying this week that he would reverse the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which allows kids who've grown up in the US to stay in the only country they've ever known.
It goes without saying that nobody can win the GOP nomination without expressing hostility toward undocumented workers. Considering the huge popularity of immigration demagogue Donald Trump, it's clear the party is in no mood to entertain the notion of immigration reform any time soon. His ideas are now mainstream and candidates have no room to maneuver on this issue. As Rubio begins to move into the lead in what everyone is calling "the establishment lane" (as opposed to "the outsider lane"), the question is whether he can be trusted on this issue. Cantor barely did anything and he was drummed out of Congress ,so it would seem to be unlikely that Rubio could overcome his very recent full fledged commitment to "amnesty".
Certainly many of the same right wing media which helped beat the drum against Cantor are expressing similar contempt for Rubio. Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter have all been merciless in their criticism, particularly since Rubio got the endorsement of billionaire Paul Singer a supporter of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. They are tracking his every word on the issue and publicizing the fact that he has said different things to different audiences.
Some others like Hannity and Limbaugh seem ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now, although The Hill quotes Limbaugh saying that the "plan" is to have a Jeb-Rubio administration with Paul Ryan and Speaker and in the "first 12 to 18 months, the donor-class agenda is implemented, including amnesty and whatever else they want. That is the objective here." (It's funny that the talk radio right has now adopted this "donor-class" rhetoric but perhaps that's a sign of progress.)
Conservative media is hugely influential among GOP primary voters and if Rubio cannot erase their doubts on the main base motivating issue of this electoral cycle he's likely to have a problem. One thing that won't work: thinking that primary voters will never know that he said on Univision that he won't be able to repeal President Obama's executive orders on immigration after having just told another audience that he would repeal the president's executive orders on immigration. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes GOP voters mistrust him. And you can be sure that talk radio will make sure every one of them knows about it.