The Washington Republican establishment showed in its State of the Union response that it’s ready to talk about immigration.
But only en español.
And only through newly elected Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo, son of Cuban exiles.
The GOP’s main English-language response to President Obama’s address was given by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a comprehensive-immigration reform critic who didn’t say the “I” word. Contrary to speculation, Curbelo didn’t give a word-for-word translation of her speech.
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“Let us work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions to our immigration system — to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy,” Curbelo said in the speech.
Curbelo also mentioned immigration reform, Cuba and education — three issues the Cuban-American former school board member ran on that Ernst didn’t mention.
But the immigration line drew the most attention. Before the speech, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Curbelo was a “puppet” for Ernst and those conservatives who espouse “anti-Hispanic” policies.
After the speech, the National Republican Congressional Committee called on its Democratic counterpart to apologize over the remarks. The DCCC didn’t.
Curbelo’s immigration reference also put some Republicans in an awkward spot.
Appearing Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus couldn’t clearly explain why the English-language version of the speech conflicted with the Spanish-language version over immigration.
Priebus said that different members of Congress would give different takes on the response to Obama, whom Priebus then went on to blame for the failure of immigration reform in Congress
“I think the president’s kind of screwed things up in regard to immigration reform by overreaching, by taking his executive action,” Priebus said, referring to two presidential maneuvers that halted deportations for millions of illegal immigrants.
When pressed why immigration reform wasn’t mentioned by Ernst, Priebus at one point said, “I’m not the policy guy.”
The Democratic National Committee pounced, asking in an email “WTF?” — a snarky, crude shorthand that stands for “What the f---?”
Unmentioned by both political parties: Immigration reform failed in Congress after House Republican leaders refused to take up the matter. Prior to Obama’s last executive action, the GOP-led U.S. House wouldn’t allow a full vote on a version of a bipartisan immigration bill passed in the U.S. Senate with the help of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio experienced significant blow-back from conservative critics, who decried his support of “amnesty,” commonly called a pathway to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.
Rubio hasn’t backed away from his broad support of immigration reform, but he has changed his tone and emphasis concerning how the matter should be approached in Congress.
The House GOP caucus has the most opposition to comprehensive immigration reform because many of its members hail from districts with a significant number of conservative non-Hispanic whites, who are the biggest opponents of a pathway to citizenship.
Curbelo, however, represents a heavily Hispanic district, as do fellow Miami GOP Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. All support a pathway to citizenship.
But Curbelo left that specific aspect off immigration reform out of his speech.
“I tried to reconcile our broader party message with my experience,” Curbelo told the Miami Herald. “I’m a representative of a people, a congressional district and I wanted to make sure that experience was represented.”
Curbelo said he shared his changes to Ernst’s speech — at least a dozen — with House leadership, “and they had no problems. I don’t want people to think there was a fight. There wasn’t.”
However, he said, he didn’t add in personal beliefs of his that might be too contentious for many Republicans.
Curbelo didn’t talk about gay marriage.
“I personally believe in the freedom to marry,” he said. “Many in the party still oppose that. I wanted this speech to be about what our party believes and what I believe. I didn’t want to poke people in the eye.”