Seeing this crop of Republican presidential candidates pander for Latino votes is like watching some teenage boys learn to dance. It is awkward and embarrassing with plenty of missteps. And the last thing in the world they want is for one of their friends to see them do it. That is why the primary on Sunday in Puerto Rico is so entertaining. The candidates need the votes and the delegates, but their efforts to make themselves appealing to Latino citizens of the United States is so forced and ridiculous that it is painful to watch. Their attempt to court Latinos voters is so filled with hypocrisy that they all look like they can't wait to get off of the island and get back home to do more of what they are good at: bashing and scapegoating Latinos.
To one audience, the Republican candidates feel they must be defenders of English, tough on immigration, and be seen always taking a stand against the diversification of America. They believe this to be what the conservative base of the Republican Party and the Tea Party want. They are mostly wrong about that, I think, but that is what they believe.
On the other hand, most Latinos in the U.S. are citizens and can vote. The Republicans are facing a Puerto Rico primary in the midst of a tough delegate battle. Given Puerto Rico's colonial situation, Puerto Ricans get to vote for president in the primaries, but cannot vote for the candidates they help choose in the November election.
So, whether they like it or not, these Republican candidates need to find a way to ask a group of voters they spend most of their time insulting to forget the insults and vote for them anyway.
Governor Romney is in an absolute freefall when it comes to Latino support and his electability nationally is highly questionable because of it. He has surrounded himself with some of the fiercest opponents of legal and illegal immigration -- Pete Wilson, Kris Kobach, Jan Brewer and any Arizona sheriff he can find -- and he went out of his way to express his opposition to the nomination of a qualified Puerto Rican -- Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- to the United States Supreme Court, even criticizing his rival in TV commercials for having voted for her confirmation.
Senator Santorum this week proclaimed his desire to see English adopted as the official language in Puerto Rico as a prerequisite to becoming a state, but the majority of Puerto Ricans do not speak English well. It was a misstep that reveals how out of touch he is with Puerto Rico, but Sen. Santorum has never been a friend to Latinos. His unsuccessful run for Senate reelection in Pennsylvania in 2006 was one of the lengthiest and ugliest sustained anti-immigrant rants the nation has ever seen in a year when Republicans bet the farm on immigration as an issue and lost control of both the House and Senate. He still wants to appeal to that part of the Republican base -- real or imagined -- that wants a candidate who is tough on these Latinos who somehow have "forced" banks and credit card companies to provide services in Spanish, requiring some in this country to have to "press 1 for English."
Both GOP candidates embrace policies designed to drive Latinos out of states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina by legalizing the use of appearance as a criteria for stopping or detaining someone to inquire into their immigration status. Ask a Puerto Rican in Arizona or the Deep South if some of the scrutiny has rubbed off on them, despite nearly 100 years of birthright citizenship. Just yesterday, the Southern Mississippi band led chants of "Where's your green card" when outstanding Kansas State point guard Ángel Rodríguez -- a Puerto Rican -- was at the free throw line in an NCAA tournament game. The racism and divisiveness generated by the nation's heated immigration debate spills over to Puerto Ricans, let me assure you. Both candidates embrace hard line anti-immigrant measures and yet covet the delegates at stake in Puerto Rico and more importantly, covet Puerto Rican support in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and a dozen other states.
They do have an important ally in the Republican Tea Party Governor of Puerto Rico who has unsuccessfully test marketed Republican campaign themes in Puerto Rico long before Wisconsin's Governor did. The regime in Puerto Rico has conducted mass firings of public employees, made higher education less accessible to young people, and chooses big construction and development interests over the environment at every opportunity. In Puerto Rico, the government-controlled police force has been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and found to abuse the civil rights of Puerto Ricans. Under the Republican governor, extra-constitutional repression of students, labor unions, environmentalists, immigrants, the LGBT community, journalists and political opponents has been the norm. Yet this Puerto Rican governor will be a mainstay spokesman against President Obama for whichever of these Republican candidates wins the nomination.
Puerto Rico has a lot of special challenges, including the economy, high rates of hate crimes and other violent crime, and high unemployment, but the Island of my wife's and my parents' birth remains a nation with its own language and culture. Puerto Rico has a clearly defined identity and makes a unique cultural contribution to the world and always will. None of that matters to the GOP candidates, however. The value of the Puerto Rico primary is in the posture they can adopt -- the image they can soften -- with Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the 50 states.
This lack of respect to the people of Puerto Rico has been shown by the cavalier attitude with which these Republican contenders have approached the very serious and complex issue of Puerto Rican self-determination and reduced what needs to be a consensus-driven process conducted by the Puerto Rican people to pandering, both to the few local Republican primary voters, as well as primary voters in the U.S.
But even the pretense will end with the closing of the polls in Puerto Rico. Then, it's back to immigrant-bashing and fear-mongering. And these Republican candidates will learn that a few days of empty promises in Puerto Rico won't fool Latinos anywhere.
Follow Rep. Luis Gutierrez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RepGutierrez