¿El Presidente?

Mitt Romney could be the first Latino president. So why is he blowing it?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

He might look and sound like an Anglo-American, but Mitt Romney could make a real run at being the first Latino president. And it wouldn’t be just in the sense that Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton the "first black president" or Latinos and even Muslims hoped Texas Gov. George W. Bush, apparently sympathetic to their issues, might be their honorary "first" when he got to the White House. As recapped this week on NBC’s Rock Center, Romney’s great-grandfather settled in a Mormon colony in Mexico in 1885. About three dozen Romneys still live in the northern state of Chihuahua, holding U.S. and Mexican citizenship, speaking Spanish and English, and described vividly by Nick Miroff in the Washington Post. They form one of a few enclaves started in the 19th century by Mormons who left the United States amid growing anti-Mormon sentiment, largely over polygamy (which the Romneys no longer practice in Mexico, either).

Moreover, Romney’s father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, was born in Mexico. He lived there as a small child until his immediate family fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. Noting the connection, a columnist in Mexico’s Reforma daily speculated on Tuesday, Jan. 10, that the Republican front-runner could theoretically claim dual citizenship. It was tongue-in-cheek, but Romney’s Mexican heritage is a reminder of the inevitably interwoven ties between the two countries, and his embrace of it might actually inject more realism into the immigration debate.

Of course, that hardly seems likely. Not only does Romney speak little about his Mexican roots, but he has defined himself in the primaries by criticizing pragmatic positions from other candidates as being soft on immigration. He attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s practice of offering in-state university tuition to some longtime, college-bound undocumented immigrants as creating a "magnet" for attracting more. He jumped on Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that there should be some practical path for legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants who have family ties and many years already in the United States by calling it a "new doorway to amnesty." Romney favors building a fence all along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where there are only about 650 miles of barriers now. It would cost billions of dollars to construct and billions more to maintain, and it would probably still be breached by those wanting to cross. And Romney’s promised to veto the "DREAM Act" legislation to provide legal status for children of illegal immigrants making their way through college or the military.

Romney as the upwardly mobile Latino could capitalize politically on vulnerabilities that President Barack Obama — the first "Pacific president" — faces due to his own tough policies on immigration and failure to push harder for the DREAM Act. His administration has set the record for most deportations, approaching 400,000 a year, an annual average 30 percent higher than under the Bush administration, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. Obama’s still popular with Latinos, but the Pew survey, taken from Nov. 9 through Dec. 7, showed that 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of Obama’s deportation policy. Of registered Latino voters, 54 percent still approve of the way Obama’s doing his job — but that’s down from 63 percent in 2010.

True, Obama’s still trouncing Republicans among this slice of the electorate, winning Latino voters surveyed by 68 percent to 23 percent in head-to-head polling versus Romney. But Romney doesn’t need to overtake him; all he needs to do is surpass the estimated 31 percent that McCain won in 2008, especially in swing states such as Colorado and Florida. Sensing the pressure, Obama has recently rushed to soften his image, giving Border Patrol agents greater flexibility to expel immigrants with serious criminal records over others and to avoid breaking up families in which some members are documented and others not. On Tuesday, he appointed Cecilia Muñoz, an advocate for immigration reform, to run his Domestic Policy Council.

Obscured by all the border politics is a fact of generational importance. If one takes into account exits and deportations, there’s very little or no net immigration to the United States from Mexico anymore, according to various reports. The U.S. Border Patrol is catching fewer and fewer people trying to cross illegally. The main reason appears to be the lack of jobs in the U.S. economy, which Mexicans track assiduously by word of mouth from relatives already north of the border. Obama’s tough policies have worked as a deterrent — and deportations have reduced overall numbers in the United States — but even accounting for the widespread drug violence, many note that Mexico’s economy is more stable than it used to be, making it more tempting for Mexicans to stay home.

The reality plays out in places like the northern Mexico border town of Nuevo Laredo, connected by three bridges over the Rio Grande to Laredo, Texas. Father Gianantonio Baggio runs a shelter in Nuevo Laredo where immigrants can get medical care, food, and a night’s rest on their long treks north or south. He says that deportees, scammed by con men, have been dropped off there with little way to get back to their homes in southern Mexico or Central America. Mexican newspapers carry reports of those heading north who have been met by violent smugglers who control the illegal border crossings and sometimes kidnap them for forced labor. Baggio says immigrants will brave several brushes with the U.S. Border Patrol but will usually give up trying to go north after their first gang kidnapping.

Baggio sees huge changes in immigration patterns. He says his shelter hosted around 10,000 people in 2009 — 7,000 heading north and around 3,000 having been deported. In 2011 through November, he says, he had hosted only about 6,000 — with 2,000 heading north and 4,000 going south.

The economic reality in the United States isn’t enough of a draw anymore to make many Mexicans face the train-hopping, desert walks, criminal gangs, and possible deportation. Those going nowadays aren’t Mexicans but Central Americans, especially Hondurans, whose countries have become increasingly lawless and unstable, so much so that some have trouble just getting food at home. At that point, it’s not just about economics. "They are going to die anyway, so it’s worth the risks," says Baggio.

With actual immigration slowing, this could be a time for candidates to look for a bipartisan long-term border strategy — rather than building expensive fences or racking up eye-popping deportation numbers. Mexico, with about 113 million people, is a crucial neighbor, lately America’s third-largest trading partner and source of imported oil. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that a healthy Mexico is good for the United States.

Mexico has elections this year, too. The front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto, has said he would try to put Mexico on America’s priority list, where he thinks it’s not now — a complaint that soured relations not long after Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were elected in 2000, pledging closer ties. There are still a number of issues to work on. U.S. companies need Mexican labor, and Mexico needs emigrants, as remittances are its second-largest source of foreign income. Mexico also needs U.S. aid in quelling the drug violence that has killed about 47,000 people over the last five years and still chases many Mexicans north. U.S. politicians seem to agree on that, but the $1.4 billion pledged in the anti-drug "Merida Initiative" has come slowly. In preparation for more drug war refugees, Paul Rexton Kan, associate professor at the U.S. Army War College, suggested in October that the asylum system be tweaked so it can more frequently offer shelter to people facing narco-threats, not just political repression. Turning people away to face certain death, he wrote, "strikes at the heart of American values."

To his credit, Romney did mention in New Hampshire the other day that his father was Mexican-born, a sign he might be intending to reposition himself for the general election. But does that even mean more denial of Romney’s roots? Neglecting the long and interdependent relationship between these two countries in favor of playing to fears of Mexican immigrants stealing the jobs of U.S. citizens is denying history. A long time ago, a few Americans named Romney headed to Mexico for safety and freedom. Now others come from Mexico to find security in the United States, something the would-be Latino president should surely understand.

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