The Rubio Factor in Latino Politics

The Rubio Factor in Latino Politics

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This past week was unusual for the Latino community --- we experienced back-to-back national political victories. First, the community mobilized to finally get the US Senate to confirm the appointment of the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as an Ambassador. Then, after much Latino pressure over the years, President Obama finally ordered a temporary lifting of the deportations of Dreamers. But another thing they had in common, but not mentioned much, was the role of Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

As Senator Rubio underwent what some see as a meteoric rise this past year within the national Republican Party, he did so in large part because of the increasing and perhaps unprecedented importance being given to the Latino vote. This was a reflection of his potential as the Republican vice presidential candidate and the political threat this could pose to the reelection of President Obama. With strong Tea Party support, Rubio became a popular and electrifying speaker at conservative Republican events and a significant player in the U.S. Senate for a freshman. The resulting media coverage he receives is, as a result, quite impressive.

While the reasons vary for President Obama's June 15th order to provide a temporary lifting of deportations of undocumented youth who were brought to this country by their parents, one important one was the result of the pressure on the President from Rubio's move to develop a so-called DREAM Act-lite bill that the Republicans could support and could possibly achieve bipartisan agreement on in the Congress.

This proposal generated a lot of interest and discussion in political circles and the media although the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, would only publicly state that he would review it while still holding to his "self-deportation" position. The big question was, would its passage present the Republican Party with an opportunity to make real inroads into what, to this point, has been a largely hostile Latino electorate? Remember, the Republican goal this year is not to get a majority of the Latino vote, but simply increase their share to 30-40 percent. 

The president's order to defer action on the deportation of DREAMers was a shrewd political move on what has become a very tight electoral chess game. It effectively countered Rubio's move in the short run, especially since the king's piece (Romney) on his side of the board hasn't moved at all on this issue. That it was a largely political move by Obama is obvious since it appears that he could have made this immigration order years ago despite his excuse to Latinos that he didn't have the legal authority to do so. But, within the Latino community, whether it was politically motivated or not, it gives real hope and relief to perhaps over a million younger undocumenteds, and could result in forcing a real move toward comprehensive immigration reform after the November elections.

The president's immigration order does, however, present a risk for those who participate in this program. Those who qualify have to reapply for this new status every two years. The question is, what happens if there is no immigration reform or adoption of a DREAM Act in two years granting a path to citizenship and Obama loses the election?

During a news teleconference held on Friday by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus following the president's announcement, the confusion over this became clear. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez explained, based on the Cuban refugee experience, that once the government bestows a certain status to a group, it is not something that can be taken away. However, later during that same teleconference, California Representative Xavier Becerra contradicted Menendez, pointing out that, because it is temporary, this new status could be taken away by the next president or the Congress. Becerra made the point that because this is the case, it puts pressure on the Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The Obama administration has also reassured everyone that this new status could not be ended by the Congress, but didn't they also reassure us that the health insurance mandate was constitutional, and now they're not so sure?

This uncertainty about the long term viability of the Obama immigration order brings one back to the Rubio DREAM Act-lite proposal. On one of those MSNBC talk shows (I sometimes can't tell them apart), Voto Latino President, Maria Teresa Kumar (an official MSNBC commentator), expressed her concern that while the president's order was a short-term solution to the problem, Rubio's proposal had a more long term effect. When the interviewer asked her if this meant that she thought the Rubio proposal was better, she kind of punted.

If anything, these two examples point to some confusion about the long term viability of the president's order, in turn raising questions about the type of risks those participating in this program will be exposed to after two years. Does this weaken the program or does it create pressure for the Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform? But, once again, Rubio was at the center of this question.

This past week also saw another important Latino victory with the confirmation of Mari Carmen Aponte as U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. She had been an Obama recess appointment whose confirmation came due last December, and which got caught up in all sorts of political intrigue resulting in her not being confirmed at the time.

At the center of this Aponte confirmation controversy was, once again, Senator Rubio, who joined his fellow Republican Senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, in putting a hold on Aponte's nomination last year. With Rubio's rising star in the Republican Party, it was thought that his support of Aponte would get her the support she needed to be confirmed at the time if he could actively help get from the 4 to 7 Republican votes that were needed. Under pressure from Florida's large Puerto Rican community, the White House, Senator Majorty Leader Harry Reid and others, Rubio eventually decided to support the Aponte nomination. This was critical to her conformation last week (although Latinos were lobbying other Republicans on this like Arizona's John McCain, who admitted to the media that he had heard from over 300 people on this issue).

This was viewed as an important victory for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who worked hard to support what they considered a highly qualified and respected Mari Carmen Aponte. For what were purely political reasons, the Latino community had to expend its limited political resources to get the Senate to select someone for this important post on the merits as they should have done in the first place.

Rubio protested that he was unfairly portrayed as obstructing this nomination by the Democrats for political purposes, while Senator Majority Leader Reid argued that Rubio and DeMint were blocking her confirmation for (guess what?) purely political reasons. In the end, Mari Carmen Aponte, who had to move out of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador in January, now has to pack up her things again and move back. The Aponte confirmation process was a vivid example of the shameful waste of time and resources that the broken politics of Washington, D.C. has become.

In both of these cases, a common theme was the Marco Rubio factor. For those who oppose him, they illustrate how he is playing a key role in trying to bring to power what many see as an anti-Latino Republican Party. For those who support him, they illustrate that he is an important player already in shaping the Republican Party's approach to reaching out to the Latino community. From whichever position you approach Rubio, an intriguing question is, without Rubio in the picture, would the president have issued his immigration order when he did and would Mari Carmen Aponte have been eventually confirmed?

After this election is over, will the verdict on the Rubio factor in Latino politics be a negative or positive one, whether or not he becomes the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate? Either way, he has been and will continue to be a factor in national Latino politics.


Angelo Falcón is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) and editor of The NiLP Network on Latino Issues. He can be reached at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.