The threat by six Republican presidential candidates to boycott a Florida debate speaks to a deep divide among Latinos in the United States. And it doesn't bode well for the future of immigration reform, either.
The debate was being planned for late January by Univision, the largest Spanish-language television network in the United States (and the fourth-largest network overall in the country). But that was before a blowup between the network and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban American and one of the country's few prominent Latino Republicans. Rubio has alleged that Univision decided to run a story about his brother-in-law's late-1980s drug conviction in retaliation for his refusal to be interviewed on one of the network's talk shows. Out of solidarity with Rubio, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and others have threatened to pull out of the debate.
The six candidates may be feeling relief. A debate sponsored by Univision would certainly have devoted considerable attention to one of the hottest issues of this race: immigration. The topic has been met with virulent rhetoric from nearly all of the Republican contenders, and avoiding a Univision debate means one fewer venue at which the candidates will have to express their views before a large audience of Latinos.
On immigration, the Republicans are in a bind. They don't want to alienate a large bloc of Latino voters. Yet those who are seen as being "soft" on illegal immigration have not fared well with the Republican base. Rick Perry, for example, took a significant hit in the polls after Texas tea party members accused him of having taken a soft stand on immigration.
This has made Rubio an important figure among Republican candidates. The senator is much more than just a rising star in the GOP; he is one of the few Republican politicians who might help win Latino votes — at least in Florida. Rubio's power and influence, already considerable, increased exponentially when the Florida primaries were moved up to late January. With its early primary date and large tea party presence, Florida will be a key state to win for those seeking the GOP nomination. It's no surprise, therefore, that the candidates are vying for Rubio's support.
But support from Rubio will go only so far in appealing to Latino voters outside Florida. As a Cuban American, the senator and his Latino voters (largely Cuban American as well) do not share the same concerns about immigration as the huge majority of the Latino population in the United States. The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966 provided them with a special status among immigrants: They immediately become legal, upon arrival. For this reason, while other Latinos in the U.S. clamor for immigration reform, many Cubans are largely indifferent toward the issue, and sometimes have favored tougher immigration laws.
Consequently, Republican candidates who view Rubio as a ticket to Latino votes could be in for a rude shock. Yes, his backing might be a good first step toward securing the nomination. But to the extent that the candidates are seen as having cast their lot with Rubio, they could be hindered in reaching out to other Latinos. Those of us from abroad who have supported comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. are saddened by such splits and fights among the Latino community.
Rubio's spat with Univision could also be problematic for the contenders, given the network's far reach. The senator has expressed outrage that the network revealed that his brother-in-law had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for drug trafficking and that he was one of the leaders of a feared organization that smuggled cocaine into the United States hidden in shipments of exotic fish.
Rubio, only 16 at the time, had no connection whatsoever with his brother-in-law's activities. Nevertheless, Univision reporters asked Rubio to comment on the issue, noting that his brother-in-law was involved in his campaign and is a part-owner of the house where Rubio's mother lives.
The Latino leader's office protested the story, calling Univision to complain about the investigation. When the network went ahead with the story as planned, Rubio then claimed that Univision had offered to soften the story in exchange for his agreement to appear on a network program to discuss immigration.
The issue has surfaced at an extremely inconvenient time for the GOP candidates. Yes, a boycott of the debate would allow candidates to avoid a forum for discussing immigration before a huge Spanish-speaking audience. And it would allow the candidates to express their solidarity with an important GOP figure.
But if they go ahead with the boycott, the contenders will have created another dilemma: Appearing to snub Univision's enormous audience could have grave consequences for the GOP nominee in November. And the whole conflict does not bode well for immigration reform in the future. Without Republican support, major reform is mathematically and politically impossible. But with these attitudes, that support is also impossible.
Jorge G. Castañeda, former Mexican foreign minister, teaches at New York University. His latest book is "Mañana Forever: Mexico and the Mexicans."