Serrano: Republican ‘meanness’ on immigration can’t be overcome, even by Rubio

Jose Serrano. (Azi Paybarah )
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Representative Jose Serrano of the Bronx can't figure out what Republicans are doing with their latest strategy to court Latino voters.

"It makes no sense to me that they continue to beat up on immigrants and Latinos in general and at the same time," Serrano said. "They say they're outreaching."

On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee announced a new director of outreach to the Latino community, along with a new Twitter account and a Tumblr page. But, in a conference call with reporters, the core of the Republican pitch seemed to be that Latinos would rally to the party's message as is, on economic grounds, and despite the tough talk from its presidential candidates on the issue of immigration.

That didn't make sense to Serrano.

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"I don't want to sound naive, I've been around a long time," said Serrano, a Democrat. "But whenever people say to you, 'We have a strategy to reach that particular group of voters,' usually it's based on saying something really positive about that group, or acknowledging something that needs to be done for that group."

As Serrano sees it, Republicans' rhetoric on immigration undercuts that effort, even among Latinos with no direct connection to the issue.

"Even people who were born here of Latino parents, people who were born here of Latino grandparents, people who were never immigrants, feel offended," he said of the rhetoric Republicans have used in discussing their plans to deal with "illegals" as they seek to appeal to voters in the early primary contests. "Because it's directed at us. So it always amazes me—and again I've been around long enough to be able to say, yeah, that's expected—but this is always confusing to me, how Republicans continue to say, in this case Mitt Romney, that they're out to gather the Latino vote and then they say all these mean things. I don't understand it."

Serrano said Newt Gingrich was correct in assessing the practical and moral difficulty of simply deporting all undocumented immigrants.

"I may be hurting him if they read your article quoting me in South Carolina, but I think in that one instance, he was being very sensible and very correct in saying, 'alright, how do we deal with this issue,'" he said.

"We know how you don't deal with this issue. You don't deport 12, 15 million people. What do you do? So you know, he gets beaten up for actually confronting the issue in a sensible way. These guys go up and say, 'If it's up to me, and I'm president, the issue is over.' But they never explain how're you going to do that. What do you mean? You tried building a wall, it didn't work. You tried putting people at the borders, it didn't work."

Serrano said immigration is "an issue of rhetoric" that "has gone beyond the issue itself."

In Serrano's view, the rhetorical gap between Republicans' hard line and Democrats' support for policies like the Dream Act goes a long way toward explaining why Latinos will support President Obama, despite a record-breaking number of deportations during his administration.

"There is criticism, somewhat, about the deportations and so on," Serrano said. "But I go back again to the old feeling that words hurt. Words have consequences."

And the consequences for Republicans, according to Serrano, will be an uphill battle for Latinos, even if they nominate a Latino as Romney's running mate.

"Under normal circumstances, putting a Latino on the ballot would be a big deal, but a Latino who doesn't have a good record on those issues, and/or would be supportive of a presidential candidate saying the things Romney has said, it doesn't matter," he said.

I asked about the possibility that Republicans might pick their young Latino star, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who has angered some Latinos with a restrictive position on immigration, and is currently in a public relations war with Univision, the dominant Spanish-language network in America.

"Marco Rubio has no support in the immigrant or Latino community for his stance on immigration," Serrano said. "He's as nasty as the rest of them."

A recent poll showed that 67 percent of Latinos "identify with or lean toward" the Democratic Party, versus 20 percent who lean Republican. The same poll showed Barack Obama beating Mitt Romney 3-1 among Latino voters in a hypothetical match-up.