Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
San Diego, California (CNN) -- California Republicans Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman probably hope Latinos -- who make up 20 percent of voters in the state -- have long fuses and short memories.
Surprise. Take it from a California Latino: The exact opposite is true. Latinos never forget a slight. And they tend to get all worked up over things that irritate them.
At the top of the list are political opportunists who lurch to the right on immigration in a primary election to schmooze the nativist fringe of the GOP, only to rush back to the center in time for the general election, all the while hoping that no one notices.
Someone always notices. Here's what Latinos have heard, in the last several months, coming from Fiorina and Whitman, the GOP nominees for U.S. Senate and governor respectively.
Fiorina: "Our borders aren't secure, and we don't have a temporary worker program that works ... illegal immigration has eroded Americans' trust in government, threatened our national security and hurt our fellow Californians."
Whitman: "I am 100 percent opposed to granting amnesty to immigrants who entered the country illegally. We need to build an 'economic fence' with a strong e-verification system that holds employers accountable for only hiring documented workers."
First, does Fiorina really think that because illegal immigrants continue to enter the United States our borders aren't secure? If that's the appropriate standard, the borders will never be secure, because there's always going to be illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States, as long as a Mexican migrant can make $80 a day in California versus $8 a day back home.
Even so, with more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents and a $3 billion budget for the Border Patrol, the U.S. government isn't exactly operating an "open border" policy. Also, I expect many Latinos would bristle at the suggestion that illegal immigration has hurt "our fellow Californians" without a serious discussion of the economic benefit that comes from the array of taxes paid by illegal immigrants and higher productivity by businesses that employ them.
As for Whitman, she seems to think she's running for secretary of Homeland Security and not governor of California. Although it may come as news to the folks of Arizona, enforcing federal immigration law and deciding whether to grant "amnesty" to millions of illegal immigration is still the job of the federal government and not overeager chief executives at the state level.
Besides, in order to enforce her idea of an "economic fence," she plans to have state investigators conduct inspections of workplaces around the state hunting for illegal immigrants. At a time when state labor investigators are already stretched thin and have their hands full looking for wage and safety violations, adding on a whole slew of duties isn't rational or realistic. So we shouldn't expect the idea to go far. So why propose it? Only to pander to right-wing nativism.
Which brings me to what really bothers many of the hundreds of Latino readers I hear from in any given month. It isn't the specific policy proposals Latinos find offensive. After all, polls show that a significant percentage of Latinos oppose illegal immigration just like other Americans.
What sticks in their craw is the tone of the debate and the uneasy feeling many of them get that Republican elected officials, and those who aspire to be elected, are too easily bullied into taking the kind of knee-jerk, hard-line positions against illegal immigration that have poisoned the dialogue and divided the country. Once that precedent is set, what crazy or harmful idea won't they go along with?
Whitman and Fiorina began their campaigns as moderate Republicans and former CEOs of big businesses -- Whitman from eBay and Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard. Both served as advisers to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. McCain is himself a former moderate who has lurched to the right to try to win re-election against a conservative challenger.
Now Latinos have to decide how they feel about Whitman and Fiorina when it's still not clear what the candidates really believe in, or whom they intend to represent if elected.
Making matters even more interesting, the two former Silicon Valley CEOs will, come November, be joined at the top of the Republican ticket by someone who has spent much of his political career trying to help the GOP reach out to Hispanic voters -- and avoid the kind of harsh language that sends Hispanics flocking to the Democratic Party.
Abel Maldonado, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, is a rising star in the Republican Party and someone who might be able to get Latino voters to take a second look at the GOP. He is also the son of Mexican immigrant farm workers. His father came to the United States more than a half century ago as a bracero, a guest worker, and labored in California's strawberry fields. Maldonado worked in those fields himself, as his family built what became a successful farming business.
I'm sure Maldonado has some strong opinions about how Republicans can talk honestly about the immigration issue without alienating Hispanic voters. I know a pair of Republican candidates who desperately need to hear them. It should make for some fascinating conversations on the campaign bus.
The opinions in the commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.