Gearing up for his likely 2012 presidential bid, Newt Gingrich has given himself a pro-Latino makeover. Having once criticized Latinos for continuing to speak "the language of living in the ghetto," he's now become a dutiful Spanish language student. And last week he held a two-day conference for Latino conservatives. In his keynote address, Gingrich tried to come across as a Bush-style moderate on immigration: "We are not going to deport 11 million people…There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty." He emphasized he's open to a pathway for legalizing undocumented immigrants: "People who have been here obeying every law except immigration…you're not going to send them home."
Gingrich's Latino outreach comes just as another round of the immigration fight is about to break out on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to legalization for young immigrants who've completed two years of college or military service. While the bill could conceivably pass the lower chamber, it doesn't take a pessimist to predict that it will hit a total impasse in the Senate.
At least five or more Senate Republicans need to sign on for the immigrant legalization bill to pass, and the GOP has made it abundantly clear lately that it ain't gonna happen. The debate isn't likely to ennoble the Democrats in the eyes of Latino voters, many of whom have been disappointed that the party hasn't pushed harder to make immigration a priority. But it's even less likely to attract them to the GOP, whose harsh and occasionally ugly rhetoric against immigrants is likely to make a reappearance during the debate next week.
At Gingrich's summit in Washington, conservatives Latinos (and pro-Latino conservatives) tried to push the message that Latino voters were fundamentally in sync with the GOP principles of free enterprise, self-reliance, and social conservatism. But, when pressed, some admitted that they needed to push back against the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric within the GOP. Andro Nodarse-Leon—a Miami investment banker and board member of a Jeb Bush-led PAC—described the GOP's race problem:
There is a massive amount of ignorance in part of the party, and that's the reality. When you have ignorance, you basically default to stereotypes…You need to educate that part of the party, if you will, about the contributions that Hispanics have made to this country, continue to make to this country.
Nodarse-Leon, for one, has pinned his hopes on Marco Rubio to help counter such ignorance. Having worked on the Florida Senator-elect's campaign from the start, he's confident that Rubio will push for moderate immigration reforms like guest-worker visas and changes to the legal immigration system—effectively reclaiming the Bush immigration agenda. And Gingrich has come closer than any other 2012 Republican contender willing to venture back to the land of the reasonable on the issue.