THE GOP, HISPANICS, AND PUERTO RICO: A LITMUS TEST

By: Al Zapanta*

The Republican Party has suffered a significant erosion of support among Hispanics as a result of two unwise policies: bashing immigrants and pushing the "English Only" agenda. Most of the considerable gains among Hispanic voters made by the GOP during the Reagan and Bush administrations were lost during the last four years. The GOP’s margin of Hispanic support dwindled to 20% in last year’s elections from the nearly 40% in the previous one. Since 1994, the perception by Latinos is that the rhetoric of some GOP leaders represents a profound policy shift intended to marginalize and abandon minority voters.

This turn of events is troubling to Hispanic Republicans and should be of concern to the entire GOP leadership. Hispanics are more culturally conservative than most Americans and are attracted to the Republican philosophy of less government regulation, lower taxes, business promotion, and education reform. Despite this agreement on principles, Hispanics are being increasingly driven from the Republican Party because of the GOP’s perceived cultural insensitivity. To avoid becoming - once again - a minority party, Republicans must continue to reach out to the Hispanic community.

For many years now, the Republican Party has waged an aggressive campaign to broaden its base by attracting new minority voters, especially Hispanic-Americans. Together with Lee Atwater, a prime mover behind the aggressive GOP minority outreach programs, I have been at the forefront of this effort. I am presently distressed that these initiatives will be further eroded by Congressional insensitivity to pending legislation regarding Puerto Rico.

A test of the Republican Party’s relations with Hispanics will occur when Congress votes on H.R. 856, The United States - Puerto Rico Political Status Act after its current recess. The bill would authorize a plebiscite in 1998, giving the 3.8 million American citizens residing on the island the opportunity to vote for one of three status options: Commonwealth, Independence or Statehood. Even though it was drafted and introduced by a highly respected Republican member, Resources Committee Chairman, Don Young of Alaska, and enjoys the support of many Republican members, a possible amendment to it stands to be an "Achilles heal" to a bill that - without it - would be hailed as legislation which is respectful of the rights of American citizens of Hispanic origin.

Rep. Gerry Solomon (R-NY), Chairman of the Rules Committee, has indicated his intention to offer an amendment to the bill imposing draconian English usage requirements on the Island, should it vote for Statehood. In a similar bill in the last session of Congress, H.R. 3024, Mr. Solomon insisted that, should the Spanish-speaking island chose statehood, all public education would need to be conducted solely in English. Such a requirement was viewed as a "poison pill" for backers of the bill and it was withdrawn.

Attaching a strict English usage provision to the Puerto Rico Political Status Act is wrongheaded. The status bill merely authorizes a non-binding plebiscite for the people of Puerto Rico – a process that will, under congressional supervision, allow residents of that U.S. territory to express a preference on the future political status of the island. Congress is not forced to take any additional actions and, regardless of the plebiscite’s outcome, Congress still decides when, if, and under what conditions Puerto Rico may change its political status. The bill simply allows Puerto Ricans – on the 100th anniversary of the island’s inclusion as a U.S. territory – to speak their minds on their political future. To attach an "English Only" provision to the bill – especially when no other U.S. territory or state has been so singled out – is indefensible and appears to many to be a racist and ill- disguised attempt to scuttle the plebiscite.

H.R. 856 proponents have argued that Puerto Rico is already officially bi-lingual and, as much as most islanders welcome increased English learning and usage, none would permit their children to abandon Spanish. Moreover, the bill already contains several provisions requiring increased English usage in Puerto Rico. Mr. Solomon’s expected amendment would not only be a slap in the face to Puerto Ricans but a body blow to efforts of the Republican Party to regain Hispanic Electoral support.

Republican elected officials need to be wary of the issues they take on and the measures which they support. We do not need to add "linguistic cleansing" to the ruinous "immigrant bashing" stigma of past election campaigns. Actions by the very vocal "English Only" lobby in Washington are deeply resented by Hispanics and other ethnic minorities in this country. Its rhetoric is short on facts and long on deception and is viewed as denigrating the culture and traditions of a growing sector of the electorate. In my view, for Republicans to sign up for that parade is to cause the eventual loss of credibility among voters from those groups, most especially Hispanics.

In considering the proposed Solomon Amendment to H.R. 856, every Republican member of the House of Representatives should weigh the impact of their vote on the future growth of the Republican Party. They should pass the Young Bill, but without any discriminatory language requirements. By doing so the GOP will be taking an important first step in mending its differences with the entire Hispanic community and persuading Hispanics to once again support the Republican Party.

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  • The writer is chairman of the National Hispanic Policy Forum, Inc. in Washington.
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