First, let me make clear that I am a huge fan of Rubio's -- but not because he's Hispanic. If his name were Mark Ruby and he had the same record and positions, I'd be every bit as enthusiastic. Similarly, if he had all the same personal attributes -- intelligence, leadership, and charisma -- but was an unabashed liberal or wishy-washy moderate, I wouldn't think of supporting him. I don't pick my candidates by skin color or ancestry. And neither do most Americans.
The key to winning more Hispanic votes is really pretty simple for the GOP: Stop pretending that illegal immigration is a top issue for most voters. It isn't. We've made enormous progress in slowing illegal immigration and controlling the border -- and it shows. As columnist Michael Medved has recently pointed out, every poll over the last year demonstrates that only 2 or 3 percent of voters consider the issue important enough to list among their top priorities.
Illegal immigration is now at about the same level as it was in 1972 -- the lowest level in decades. Nearly a million fewer illegal immigrants live in the U.S. today than in 2007, partly because of the downturn in the economy. Even more might have left, as they did during the Great Depression, if we hadn't made it more difficult to return when the economy improves.
One of the great ironies of the border fence is that it keeps many illegal immigrants who might otherwise return to their home countries to wait out the economic downturn from doing so, because it would be harder to return than it was in the past. And whatever else you can say about Obama, his administration, surprisingly, has deported more illegal immigrants than any in recent history.
Instead of trying to outdo one another on who can be the most anti-illegal-immigrant candidate, the GOP presidential contenders ought to just drop the issue. Mitt Romney looks ridiculous when he attacks Rick Perry for supporting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who came as children and have lived most, if not all, of their lives in Texas (and therefore paid the same sales and real estate taxes that finance higher education in the state as other Texans).
Perry looks even sillier when he accuses Romney of "hiring" illegal immigrants when he used a landscaping service that had illegal aliens in its employ. He who has never eaten a tomato or leaf of lettuce picked by an illegal immigrant; who has never worked in an office cleaned by one; who has never slept in a hotel or been served in a restaurant with illegal immigrants on the payroll -- he may cast the first stone.
And Herman Cain's position that he will electrify the border fence with the warning, posted in Spanish and English, that "it will kill you," is positively ugly. He later said he was joking, but threatening to electrocute people or shoot them "with real guns and real bullets" is no more funny than displaying a noose -- something one would think Cain might be more sensitive to.
If conservatives would just lay off an issue that most voters care little about, we might actually begin to win back some of those Hispanics who have voted Republican in previous presidential elections.
The GOP will not likely win a majority of Hispanic votes anytime soon, but it doesn't have to. Republicans need about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to remain competitive in key states. The platform of smaller government, lower taxes and strong family values is still their best guarantee of winning more Hispanic votes.
Republicans don't need a Hispanic on the ticket; they need to quit stirring the anti-immigrant pot.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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