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Here Comes "His Panic"

by Geraldo Rivera | Feb 22, 2008


On Tuesday February 26th, my book about immigration and the Latino American experience is being published. Called "His Panic, Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S.," it is one of my proudest achievements because it exposes how the hysterical anti-immigration propaganda campaign that has infected our nation's political dialogue is based on lies and distortion, false statistics and race-baiting.

The book predicts an election year uprising among Hispanics finally sickened enough to make a stand against candidates and news organizations that have spent the last several years trying to get the country to turn her back on our noble immigrant tradition. One of the first to fall was Mitt Romney.

He can't say I didn't try to warn him. The former Massachusetts governor and I met by chance outside Bill O'Reilly's green room at Fox News world headquarters in New York. It was late in 2007, I was just coming off my regular weekly sparring match with the host of the number one show on cable news, "The O'Reilly Factor," and the then leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination was waiting to go on. "Governor, with all due respect, you have to be careful about the tone of your anti-immigration rhetoric," I cautioned as we stood in the hallway, surrounded by the governor's aides and Secret Service guys talking into their sleeves.

It was in the weeks before the all-important Iowa caucuses and the candidacy of Romney's chief rival for the GOP nomination John McCain appeared dead in the water, mortally wounded by a moderate position on immigration; last Spring, McCain had even co-authored the president's failed comprehensive reform legislation, and angry, anti-immigrant crowds in Iowa were promising to make him regret it.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, and despite past moderate positions on immigration that were based on pragmatic compassion, Romney and long-shot former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had joined more radical candidates Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter as immigration hardliners. Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani were even taking vicious shots at each other over who had been more pro-sanctuary, pro-amnesty for immigrants in their past lives. All were trying to out do the other in promising to wall off the southern border, and in the cases of Hunter and Tancredo, arrest and deport the twelve million or so undocumented men, women and children living illegally in the United States.

The extremist tone of the rhetoric was like a putrid fog settling over the entire U.S. Latino community, which has recently become the nation's largest minority, 45 million strong, up from just four million in 1950 according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. "A lot of Latinos like me who are citizens or here legally are really beginning to feel insulted and being made the scapegoat for everything from crime to terrorism," I explained to Governor Romney that day in the green room.

"I have 45 Hispanics on my advisory committee in Florida," Romney explained quickly and sincerely, "so I'm very sensitive about only targeting the illegal immigrants." I told him it might not matter, that we all sort of look alike, wished him luck and left.

Several weeks later, and following defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney got his butt kicked in the watershed state of Florida. Despite Romney's expensive and extensive campaign, much of it targeted at South Florida's Cuban community, usually one of the most reliably conservative voting blocs in the country, John McCain carried the Sunshine State largely on the strength of the Latino vote, winning 54% of the Republican Hispanics to Romney's 14%, a margin of about 5-1.

In his march to victory, McCain garnered endorsements from Mel Martinez, the Florida GOP senator, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate. The Arizona senator also scored endorsements from South Florida's three congressional Republicans, the Diaz-Balart brothers and feisty Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all who professed dismay over the anti-immigrant tone of the debate.

"This is the first issue that, in my mind, has absolutely galvanized the Latino community in America like no other," said Senator Martinez disappointed that his party, which made a point under President Bush of courting Latino voters, was hijacked by extremists on immigration in the lead-up to the November 2006 elections. "This is huge, because this is the state Republicans point to as a model of their Hispanic outreach," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski earlier told the Miami Herald in response to shifts away from the GOP in statewide voter registration. "Clearly the Bush era is dead."

On the Democratic side, in California, where in 2006 Hispanics accounted for 19% of the vote, Hillary Clinton carried the Golden State on Super Tuesday largely because of a more than two to one margin over Barack Obama among Latinos. Before her candidacy faded in the face of 'Obamania,' Hillary was largely sustained by that disproportionate Hispanic support. Her early, awesome strength in the community is probably a result of the enormous good will generated by former president Bill Clinton, the first to have two Hispanic cabinet secretaries serving simultaneously, Henry Cisneros and Federico Pena. Buoyed also by endorsements from Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is the frontrunner to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's governor, and New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, Hillary rode that Spanish wave to victory in every primary contest with a substantial Hispanic population (except Illinois, Obama's home state).

In addition to California, the group almost single-handedly blunted Obama's late surge in the New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts primaries. Sadly for the former first lady, Hillary's beleaguered campaign will not do as well in Texas on March 4th, because in the weeks since Super Tuesday, the remarkable Mr. Obama has become the more forceful of the two on the issue of the need for immigration reform. And besides, Latinos are like everyone else who loves to back a winner.

Stressing the need to treat immigrants "humanely," born again frontrunner and now presumptive GOP nominee John McCain also did well among Hispanics in California and other states in what I dubbed a victory for the "Decency Wing" of his party. Hopefully, my hero will not tilt too far to the right attempting to placate conservatives and stay true to the ethos that led him to co-sponsor last year's failed immigration reform bill.

How vital a role will Hispanics play in the general election come November? We were a record 8.6% of all eligible voters in 2006. Census data shows that the number could reach 10% or more in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In criticizing his party's aggressively anti-immigrant tilt, Gil Cisneros, the chairman of the Colorado state chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly told the Rocky Mountain News, "don't come to us on Election Day and eat our tamales and want us to vote for you."

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