The recent selection of Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to deliver the response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address next Tuesday certainly suggests a change in the image the Republican Party seeks to project towards Hispanics. But is it a substantial change?
It certainly points to a new strategy: no longer content to alienate the Latino community, the GOP will attempt to cultivate it. How much non-Cuban Hispanics will be swayed remains to be seen, but Rubio has certainly convinced his party's leadership that he is the person who best represents Hispanic interests within the party. This makes him the natural choice to rebut Obama, and it doesn't hurt that he had already taken a leading role in trying to define the immigration policy agenda. Rubio's unprecedented decision to deliver his address in both English and Spanish is also compelling, suggesting some acceptance among Republicans that there is a space for people of Hispanic origin, and of Spanish speakers, within the national fabric. Though other members of his party, such as former President George W. Bush, have delivered speeches in Spanish these were mostly targeted to Hispanic audiences, never to the national audience and especially not in such a relevant event. While parts of the party's constituency, especially the business elite, have long been happy to welcome Latino support, the party has also granted significant space in its ranks to people with nativist views, including public officials who have actively pursued policies that demonize this population, including those that turn their jurisdictions into hostile environments for immigrants and even no-go zones for the Spanish language.
This is not trivial. The greatest test of how far Republicans are ready to go to cultivate a Hispanic constituency, however, lies in the field of immigration. Rubio will very likely present his position on this issue, which has become the mainstream position within his party and is defining the negotiating space with Democrats, and with the president. Does his view represent a change in substance? Only to a point. Rubio's proposal is still piecemeal rather than comprehensive, and privileges enforcement over regularization. Further, though it recognizes the need to grant a path to citizenship to migrants, he has yet to specify after how long they will be able to obtain citizenship. We should also remember that even were the party to advocate a liberal and comprehensive regularization, offering legal status in the country, true inclusion in the party, and the polity, requires access to political rights that come only with citizenship.
It is understandable why Republican politicians, like Rubio, are so wary of granting access to citizenship to the undocumented population. Even if granted the access many of them would not naturalize and vote, as reflected in low naturalization and voting rates among Hispanics but especially among the Mexican-origin population, which encompasses most of the undocumented population. And those who do vote may just consolidate a structural Democratic advantage, if their votes express a still-fresh memory of Republican officials' hostile acts. But what it is surprising is that even this rather cautious attempt by politicians like Rubio to protect the political interests of their party while opening up the doors to cultivate Hispanics hoping that newer generations will be less hostile to them, is still suspect for many members of his party especially in the House of Representatives.
In truth, there has been an attempt to moderate positions even there. But just looking at the people who was invited to testify during the most recent immigration hearing gives a good idea of how far Republicans would have to go to change its substantive positions. The appearance of people like Jessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies, who keeps advocating for more immigration enforcement at the border even while the border is more secure than ever, suggests a pretty entrenched resistance. Furthermore, though members of the GOP leadership in the House have finally opened up their minds to granting access to citizenship to some kinds of migrants, those with engineering and scientific skills and those who were brought to this country while they were young ("DREAMers"), this in reality leaves most of the immigrant population of Hispanic origin without prospect of a viable status in this country.
Thus, though there is some substantial change, we still need to consider it moderate until key members of the GOP leadership in the House, where all attempts at passing a comprehensive immigration reform look likely to run aground, finally show a real willingness to accept the entrance of the Hispanic immigrant population into the nation.