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Spanish lessons for the GOP

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, December 10, 2010;

Newt Gingrich is learning Spanish. Bless his heart.

This is the same person who three years ago called Spanish "the language of living in a ghetto." He quickly apologized and last week hosted his own forum on Latino issues. The only profile in semi-courage among the Republican presidential wannabes, Gingrich even says what no other major Republican is willing to utter.

"We are not going to deport 11 million people," he said at the forum. "There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty."

There is. It is called comprehensive immigration reform. Or at least the motherhood-and-apple-pie Dream Act, which congressional Republicans are blocking this week. But we knew this was going to happen.

Gingrich represents something new at the top of the party, especially compared with the likes of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Like Saint Peter before the crow of the cock, they conveniently forget their earlier support for legalizing most unauthorized immigrants.

Jeb Bush is reemerging from his shell, too. The favorite Anglo of many Latinos, Bush has a Mexican wife, is simpatico and really does habla Espanol - fluently. He accuses both parties of playing politics with immigration but stops short of pushing reform like his brother George did. Jeb's Latino strategy has been to nurture his star pupil, Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio.

Add other newly elected Republican Latinos to the launches of Fox News Latino and the Heritage Foundation's Libertad.org, and suddenly making nice with Hispanics has become an incipient Republican cottage industry.

Let us hope it grows enough to shut down the hateful rhetoric and demonizing of Latinos by too many Republicans in recent years. Who cares if the change is done out of political self-interest? Latinos are an estimated 16 percent of the population and growing faster than the rest.

So to help the Grand Old Party, let me explain why even its enlightened leaders will fail if they don't understand why what happens to unauthorized immigrants is so crucial to Latinos. It is all about culture and family values.

The Republican kick-'em-out crowd may say their concern is legal and economic - exaggerated but real concerns - but many studies show that cultural fear is a strong and possibly overriding force. The fear is a natural one of being overrun by Spanish speakers and a foreign culture, whether the immigrants are here legally or not.

Hispanics are assimilating as did immigrant groups before them, and much of the country has come to see diversity as a fundamental American value. Gingrich knows this. But the deportation advocates have cowed the Republican Party with a message of rejection and hate that most Latinos take personally.

In a Pew poll released just before the midterm election, 61 percent of Latinos said that discrimination against Hispanics was a "major problem," up from 54 percent just three years ago. Nearly 80 percent oppose the papers-please Arizona law.

The fear of deportation is so palpable among Latinos that fully 52 percent of those surveyed told Pew they worry "a lot" or "some" that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported. Among immigrants, the proportion shot up to 68 percent. Even a third of native-born Latinos shared this gut-wrenching fear.

Meanwhile, unauthorized immigrants aren't the single men of yore. Two-thirds of the unauthorized adults are married or live with a partner, and nearly half live with children. This compares with 21 percent of native-born American adults who live with children.

You kick out one unauthorized adult, in other words, and you are likely to break up a family. The children of 37 percent of the adults, moreover, are U.S. citizens.

This and a Christian sense of forgiveness are among the reasons the culturally powerful Catholic Church and even the national organization of Hispanic evangelical church leaders, who are mostly Republican, support a path to citizenship.

Sure, some Latinos are kick-'em-out, too. Rubio, for example, recently turned his coat and joined them, but he is Cuban American. Cubans don't worry about deportation; they get automatic political refugee status if they sneak in illegally.

In the Pew poll, only 13 percent of Latinos agreed with deporting the unauthorized. That is not a good base from which to grow the Republican Party.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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