Opinion

This debate moment perfectly captured the GOP's devil's bargain on immigration

Marco Rubio was forced to give an eloquent defense of speaking Spanish. It did him little good.

A question: When you walk into a store in your neighborhood and hear two people speaking Spanish, what goes through your mind?

Maybe it's common enough where you live that you don't think anything in particular. Or maybe you think, "Isn't America a splendid amalgamation of different cultures and backgrounds?" Or maybe you think, "Speak English, dammit, this is America!"

There are without question Republicans who think each of those things, but the latter sentiment is particularly well represented among Donald Trump's supporters. And at the same time, the GOP's field of contenders contains two candidates — Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush — who not only speak fluent Spanish but are eager to sit for interviews in the language. This came up in a vivid way in Wednesday's debate — a way that demonstrates the conflict the party faces between satisfying its base and reaching out to the voters it will need in the general election.

During a discussion about immigration, moderator Jake Tapper asked Trump about the fact that he has criticized Bush for answering questions in Spanish on the campaign trail. In response, Trump said, "We have a country, where, to assimilate, you have to speak English. And I think that where he was and the way it came out didn't sound right to me. We have to have assimilation — to have a country, we have to have assimilation." Bush seemed a little baffled by the criticism, as though he couldn't quite grasp why it would be a problem for him to reply to a question asked in Spanish with an answer in Spanish. Then Marco Rubio, who must have been saying to himself, "Oh, I'm ready, call on me, I am so ready, here we go…", got his chance:

I agree that English is the unifying language of our country, and everyone should learn to speak it. It's important. I want to tell you a story about someone that didn't speak English that well. It was my grandfather; he came to this country in the 1960s, as a — escaping Cuba. And he lived with us, growing up. And my grandfather loved America. He understood what was so special about this country. He loved Ronald Reagan; he would be very proud of the fact that we're here this evening.

My grandfather instilled in me the belief that I was blessed to live in the one society in all of human history where even I, the son of a bartender and a maid, could aspire to have anything, and be anything that I was willing to work hard to achieve. But he taught me that in Spanish, because it was the language he was most comfortable in. And he became a conservative, even though he got his news in Spanish.

And so, I do give interviews in Spanish, and here's why — because I believe that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to help people who are trying to achieve upward mobility. And if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me. Not from a translator at Univision.

It's hard to imagine a better answer — Rubio links the question to his biography and to Republican demigod Ronald Reagan, making speaking Spanish a means of spreading the ideology everyone present believes in. Many people no doubt found his answer persuasive and moving.

But Trump knows his audience, too.

That audience sees immigration as at best something that makes them unsettled, and at worst something that they fear and hate. And there is no more symbolically weighted element of this issue than language, Spanish in particular.

As immigrants from Mexico and points south have spread beyond places like New York, California, Florida and Texas and into the "heartland," people who spent most of their lives around only people who looked and talked like them are now more and more often exposed to the Spanish language, whether it's on signs or on television or being spoken by those they pass on the street. Spanish is why so many of those people feel like the country they knew is transforming, even disappearing, around them. You may hear someone complain about automated phone systems that ask you to press 1 for English and say, "What's the big deal?", but to many it represents profound alienation and loss.

To be clear, that doesn't mean that everyone who has those kinds of feelings is xenophobic, even if some certainly are. Many people are conflicted, torn between basic ideals about immigration they agree with (they haven't forgotten that they're not Native American) and their discomfort with change. That's why the idea that when it comes to immigrants we should "make them learn English" is so powerful, even if in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. It says that the immigrants who come here will not take away the America you know; they'll join it and become American themselves.

The truth is that every immigrant wave has followed the same trajectory when it comes to language acquisition, and the current wave is no different: Those who immigrate as adults learn only some English, their kids are bilingual, and their kids' kids speak mostly English, with each successive generation losing more and more of the old language. But those ambivalent voters need reassurance, which is why everyone who advocates comprehensive immigration reform includes "make them learn English" as one of the hurdles undocumented immigrants will have to cross before they can get legal status.

Finely crafted, beautifully delivered answers like the one Rubio gave are part of the reasons why many Democrats will tell you he's the one Republican candidate they truly fear, not only for his innate talents but for the possibility — not the certainty, but the possibility — that he could pull significant numbers of Hispanic voters into the Republican column.

But at the moment, he's at around 5 percent in primary polls, while Trump is at around 30 percent. It was Trump's talk about Mexicans being criminals and rapists, and his promise to build a 2,000-mile wall along the Mexican border, that propelled him to the front of the pack and is probably what's keeping him there.

So right now, the Republican candidates confront a much stronger market for tough talk and fear-mongering about immigration than for inspiring tales of immigrant grandfathers. Everything will change in the general election, but by then they will have made their point to Hispanic voters quite clearly — a point that anybody's grandfather could understand, whatever language he speaks.

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