Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Mel Martinez's recent resignation from the United States Senate was for personal and family reasons. But the departure of the Republican Party's most visible Hispanic leader crackles with political symbolism.

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Martinez does not consider himself disillusioned, but he is "frustrated." "There are lots of Hispanics to the right of you and me on immigration," he told me, "but they think, 'Republicans just don't like us.'" Martinez makes clear that a number of his Senate colleagues were "conservative, but not inflammatory." Other elected Republicans, however, made "pretty divisive use of immigration policy. It is more a matter of tone, of how you talk about immigrants. It has made Hispanics feel unwelcome, unwanted."

In ethnic politics, symbolism matters. And recent Republican signals to Hispanics have often been crudely unwelcoming. During the 2006 congressional debate on immigration reform, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., grabbed the Republican microphone to call Miami a "Third World country." The same year, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., darkly warned of illegal immigrant murderers as a "slow motion nightmare" greater than 9/11. A provision of the House immigration reform bill would have made it illegal for priests, ministers and volunteers to "assist" illegal immigrants -- criminalizing a religious duty. Republican presidential candidates conspicuously avoided Hispanic forums during the 2008 primaries. Conservative shock radio, on its frightening fringes, can be overtly racist, referring to Mexican immigrants as "leeches," "the world's lowest primitives" and diseased carriers of the "fajita flu" who may "wipe their behinds with their hands." Pat Buchanan sells books with this title: "State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America."

As Martinez points out, many Republicans who oppose his pro-immigration views are not divisive or inflammatory. But other, angry voices crowd them out. As a result, Republican support among Latinos is collapsing. In Martinez's home state of Florida, for example, 56 percent of Hispanic voters voted for George W. Bush in 2004. Four years later, 57 percent voted for Barack Obama.

Now hearings are beginning on another immigration reform bill, with a legislative debate likely to ripen in 2010. For Democrats -- pledged to comprehensive reform but weighing union opposition to a temporary worker program -- the immigration debate will be difficult. For Republicans, it may be an invitation to political suicide.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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