Can Gingrich survive immigration critics?
03:11 - Source: CNN

Editor’s note: Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

By Maria Cardona, CNN Contributor

(CNN) – Last week’s Republican debate brought some interesting surprises. As a Latina Democrat, the biggest one I saw was Newt Gingrich’s defense of a legalization program for undocumented immigrants who have roots in the community and pose no threat to society.

Herman Cain has “joked” about an electrified fence on the border. Michele Bachmann can’t stop talking about her outrage at “anchor babies.” Mitt Romney, in an effort to make himself look like an immigration hardliner, has disavowed any past stances that would make him look soft on the issue. Most of the GOP candidates have gone to “kiss the ring” of Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio – arguably the most anti-immigrant law enforcement officer in the nation. So Gingrich’s new found “compassion” stands in stark contrast to the rest of the GOP field, who have tripped over each other to show who is most right-wing on immigration.

But how will all this play out for Latinos in 2012? Is the community divided?  Will they stay home in 2012?  Will they still support this president or will Gingrich create a new opening for the GOP with Latinos?

This is a deep and complicated question that no doubt perplexes those who try to define us by shallow, rigid strictures: Does Latino identity play a part in how we make decisions at the ballot box and how we view our public policy makers?

Sometimes, we ourselves don’t understand how this affects the decisions we make.

As Latinos, it is easy for the overwhelming majority of us to be against the anti-immigrant talk by most of the current field of GOP candidates.  No wonder a recent Univision/Latino Decisions poll shows Obama beating all the candidates by margins of at least two-to-one.

Still, some Latinos believe we should re-think our loyalty to Obama and to the Democrats. While I believe that President Obama has done an enormous amount to help Latinos in this country – the Recovery Act, health care reform, financial credit card reform, Pell Grants – there is still a narrative that he did not deliver on his promise of comprehensive immigration reform. There’s disappointment in the rise of deportations that, at times, have led to separation in families.

Personally, I think this is a misguided, especially since the administration has announced new deportation guidelines that will show leniency in cases of those who pose no threat to the community. The problem will not be fixed until we pass comprehensive immigration reform, and we have the Republicans to thank for the lack of it.

But overall, the question of how Latino identities play into our national political debates is a good one. I believe these perceived differences are a good thing. They demonstrate political evolution and maturation. We are finally understanding that all our voices matter and we all need to speak up, even if there are dissenting voices among us.

This demonstrates the constant struggle – the daily reality – of understanding the identity of Latinos in the country.

I am honored when I hear from other Latinos about how proud they are to see a Latina on national television, holding her own on arguments not just about immigration and Latino issues, but about the economy, jobs, terrorism and foreign policy.

Young, bright, up-and-coming Latinas have come to me with this dilemma: Which identity to put first? When you are in a position to direct public policy, who are you first and foremost? When do you represent Latinos and when do you represent all Americans? There are many Latinos in position to affect the administration’s public policy on health, education, housing, foreign policy and yes, immigration. When I served as a Clinton administration appointee, I was in the same position and at times felt torn between identities.

I have come to see myself as the totality of my experiences – as a woman, Latina, Colombian-born American, mother and professional who had opportunities to work in national politics and cut my teeth in an area not populated by many Latinos.

I believe that we can be all these things.

We can be representatives of the Latino community, even in jobs where our responsibilities are much broader – just as Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s are as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, as Governor Bill Richardson’s were when he led New Mexico and as Senator Robert Menendez are as a representative of New Jersey. These jobs are bigger than the person that holds them and they must represent the interests of the country as a whole. By doing this, they not only represent America well, they represent Latinos well.

This doesn’t mean they are turning their backs on their community – quite the opposite. The 50 million-plus Latinos living in this country have become such an integral part of our society that good, fair public policy towards middle-class and working-class Americans will be nothing but good for Latino families in this country.

As Latinos, we don’t have to choose.

But I do believe that Latinos in position of power have the obligation to empower other Latinos, to make their voices heard – and to continue to enrich the fabric of ideas that make our community so vibrant, whether it’s through agreement or dissent. While it will surely complicate things for those who want to put us in a box – and even for ourselves  –  it’s what is so fulfilling about being Latinos in America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maria Cardona.