May 14, 2013

Given the current scandal-mania, it’s no surprise this went under the radar, but in Florida, the GOP’s state director of Hispanic outreach, Pablo Pantoja, has resigned his position, left the Republican Party, and changed his party identification to “Democrat.”

His reasoning is straightforward: For all the focus on outreach to Latino communities, Pantoja believes that there is a “culture of intolerance surrounding the Republican Party.” In a letter, he cites the recent revelations surrounding Jason Richwine, a former scholar at the Heritage Foundation, and his ideas on race and intelligence. “Although the organization distanced themselves from those assertions,” writes Pantoja, “other immigration-related research is still padded with the same racist and eugenics-based innuendo.”

And then there’s also all the GOP rhetoric about immigration. It’s not hard to find examples of prominent Republicans using racially-loaded terms like “anchor babies” and “illegals” to describe unauthorized Latino immigrants and their children. Indeed, the Republican presidential primaries were soaked with derogatory rhetoric towards immigrants, and one candidate — Texas Governor Rick Perry — began his slide to defeat after he expressed sympathy for the children of unauthorized immigrants.

Pantoja’s departure from the Republican Party is instructive. Not only does it illustrate the dynamic of the last four years — where Latino voters responded to negative Republican rhetoric by going further into the Democratic camp — but the potential dynamic of the next decade. As Greg noted earlier this morning, conservative Republicans in the Senate are preparing to introduce a variety of “poison pill” amendments to the immigration bill — which is happening right now as we speak — designed to make the package unpalatable to supporters. Likewise, House Republicans have yet to offer their support to a comprehensive bill.

The combination of right-wing rhetoric and figures like Jason Richwine have created the perception of racialized opposition to immigration reform, where attempts to kill the legislation stem from anti-Hispanic bigotry. If the immigration bill fails, it could damage the GOP’s relationship with Hispanic voters even further for another generation. Which means — for Republican supporters — that it has to pass. There’s no other option.

The good news is that a bill is still possible, as key Republicans like Marco Rubio remain behind the proposal. But they still need to break through right-wing opposition, and so far, it’s hard to see that happening.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.