Thursday’s raucous GOP presidential debate, with its heated rhetoric around the issue of immigration, highlighted some of the challenges Republican Party faces in reaching Latino voters. That was also clear earlier in the week, when Republicans delivered two responses to President Obama’s State of the Union address: one by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in English; the other, by Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, was in Spanish.
The speeches were nearly identical, except when it came to immigration. On this topic, the lawmakers’ remarks differed both in tone and in substance. Analysts said the mixed messaging reflected a growing rift within the party over immigration, especially as the anti-immigrant message of leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has pulled some of his competitors to the right on the issue.
In her speech, Haley emphasized a need to stop illegal immigration, restrict the admission of refugees, fix the nation’s “broken immigration system,” and welcome only “properly vetted immigrants.” She made no mention of what do about the millions of immigrants already in the U.S. illegally.
In contrast, Diaz-Balart struck a softer tone. He said it was obvious the nation’s immigration system needed reform, and that the country needed to defend its borders while also offering “a permanent and humane solution to those living in the shadows.”
Gabriel Sanchez, a professor at the University of New Mexico and a researcher with the polling firm Latino Decisions, said the split message on immigration in two otherwise mostly identical speeches “represents the overall difficulty that the Republican Party is having with courting the Latino vote.”
The party recognizes that, in order to be competitive in a presidential election, they need to draw more Latinos to the Republican side. And yet on the issue of immigration, which affects Latinos more than many other groups, “they have a splintered party,” Sanchez said.
Luis Alvarado, a Republican strategist, said the decision to soften the tone on immigration in the Spanish speech was a smart political move. He said Diaz-Balart’s speech was an opportunity for Republicans to appeal to Latinos disaffected by the president’s failures on immigration.
“For those who care about immigration reform and listened to the president’s speech, they continue to be disappointed,” Alvarado said. “They see others in the Democratic Party getting what they wanted, and Latinos were left behind. And that is why Latinos are now up for grabs.”
But Lisa García Bedolla, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said Republicans appeared to be trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Spanish-speaking viewers.
“It’s a cynical attempt to pander to Spanish-speaking Latinos on the presumption that they somehow won’t find out that what they said in English was different,” García Bedolla said.
She said that if Republicans were really interested in delivering meaningful immigration reform and signaling that they respected Latino voters, there’s no reason Governor Haley’s speech could not have taken the same tone on immigration as Diaz-Balart’s.
“And so the fact that [their speeches] were different, I think, was a political calculation,” García Bedolla said. “That suggests a level of cynicism, or at least a level of disrespect, toward Latino voters in terms of their ability to really know what the positions of the Republican Party are.”
She added that, come Election Day, that choice could backfire.