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GOP split on Latinos and immigration

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: GOP split between the cautious and clueless on immigration
  • He says the cautious recognize rise of Latinos and are wary of anti-immigrant frenzy
  • He says clueless are trying to get votes of those who don't value Latinos as Americans
  • In California, GOP candidates Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman are split, he says
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr., a regular contributor to CNN.com, is a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- What goes around ... can blow up in your face.

The Republican Party is headed for such a blow-up -- over race and ethnicity. It's been a long time coming.

For more than 40 years, since the advent of the "Southern strategy" in 1968 that put Richard Nixon in the White House, Republicans have used race as a wedge issue to scare up support from white voters afraid of changing demographics, increased competition and a perceived loss of prominence.

Consider how, every few years, Republican lawmakers crusade against racial preferences to get the votes of suburban white parents out there who are convinced that Johnny could have been admitted to Princeton if, they tell themselves, a black kid hadn't taken his spot.

With increased levels of immigration in the past couple of decades, the Southern strategy has become the Southwest strategy. In a number of states (howdy, Arizona!), the GOP is exploiting anxiety over the "Latinization" of the United States to hustle votes from those who dread a demographic future that requires us to "press one for English" and promises a taco truck on every corner.

Here's what interesting: With the 2010 Census expected to show that the Latino population in the United States has exploded to 60 million, or about 18 percent of the total, not all Republicans are sure they want to go on this suicide run.

This division is on display in California, where the two candidates at the top of the GOP ticket -- Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman -- have taken radically different paths on the immigration issue.

Fiorina is breathing fire and espousing support for an Arizona law that, before it was defanged by a federal judge, required local and state police to enforce federal immigration law and which might as well have been named the "Latino Expulsion Act."

Whitman opposes the law and reportedly killed a resolution at last week's state GOP convention that would have declared support for it.

How's that for poetry? The Republican Party has shamefully used the immigration issue to divide Americans. So now it's only fair that the issue should divide Republicans.

And it does divide the party into two camps: the cautious and the clueless.

Cautious Republicans are willing to acknowledge that many of those who are anti-illegal immigration are also anti-Latino, and so they tread carefully rather than antagonize one of the fastest-growing groups of voters in the country. That's not a bad idea. It is estimated that every two years, there are another 500,000 Latino voters added to the rolls.

The cautious include Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. In an interview this week with Spanish-language television network Univision, Steele tried to distance himself and the party from Arizona's immigration law.

"The actions of one state's governor is not a reflection of an entire country, nor is it a reflection of an entire political party," Steele said, referring to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and her support for the law.

Steele also said he hoped that "level heads will prevail" in finding a "common-sense solution" to the immigration issue.

Meanwhile, clueless Republicans can't resist the allure of cheap and easy votes, and so they're still rolling the dice with proposals that push the idea that Latino-Americans aren't full-blooded Americans.

One minute they're deputizing local police to hassle U.S.-born Latinos who fit the profile of illegal immigrants. The next, they're suggesting that U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants no longer have U.S. citizenship -- and the voting privileges that go with it.

Much of this is to put U.S. Latinos in their place and remind them that even after 500 years on the continent, they're still on probation.

The clueless include at least seven Senate Republicans who are toying with the wacky and wicked idea of rewriting the 14th Amendment to eliminate so-called birthright citizenship. They are: Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Kyl of Arizona, Charles Grassley of Iowa, John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Now if these shameless panderers can only get around that pesky language in Section 1 that makes it plain that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."

It's sad how far the party of Lincoln has fallen: Going after kids who can't defend themselves -- to keep them from becoming U.S citizens and, one day, voting so they can defend themselves. That is about as despicable as it gets in politics, so say the wealthy Latino Republicans I'm hearing from who assure me that they've written their last check to the party.

As one put it: "This is my country, and this is my party. I love both. And I don't want (expletive) running either one."

Using diversity as a wedge issue is a dumb mistake that will likely plague the GOP for many years to come -- assuming the party lasts that long.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.