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Hugh Jackson: El nuevo GOP

Elections have consequences. As a consequence of last fall’s election, Republicans have decided that their viability going forward hinges on convincing people that no, as it happens, Republicans do not in point of fact hate Mexicans. And so — highlighted last week by Barack Obama’s visit to the presidential battleground state with the highest Latino voter turnout in last fall’s election — much-needed, long-overdue reform of the nation’s counterproductive immigration laws is in the works.

Finally.

A bipartisan Senate group unveiled its principles for reform a day prior to Obama’s Las Vegas speech. Taking a cue from that group’s Republican members, GOP lawmakers far and wide are dialing back the xenophobia and even embracing reform that includes a “path to citizenship” — a term that was synonymous with “amnesty” in the Republican lexicon of Bad Things as recently as Nov. 5, e.g., the day before the 2012 election.

Mere months ago Dean Heller was vowing to prevent “benefits for illegals,” a phrase that perpetuates the right’s ridiculously exaggerated claims about the health and social service costs posed by unauthorized workers. During the 2012 campaign Heller also described the DREAM Act as “amnesty.” And echoing thinly veiled racist code about “anchor babies,” Heller told voters he’d prefer to end birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (a document Republicans hold sacrosanct, except for the parts of it they don’t like).

Heller’s political handlers now know that 2012 marked the last year ever that a U.S. Senate candidate in Nevada could lose the Latino vote by 40 points and still win an election. So, within days, Heller was gushing (his default manner of delivery) about his “very open mind” on immigration reform, telling the Sun, “I think doing it sooner rather than later is in everybody’s best interest.”

Heller even gushed (again, his default mode) that he, Dean Heller, wanted to be a Senate leader in the immigration reform deal.

In that same Sun story, Nevada GOP consultant Robert Uithoven hoped that Heller would be “front and center” on immigration reform, citing “the obvious demographic change in Nevada.”

Uithoven is a particularly illustrative example of the newfound Republican mission to reach out to Latino voters. Along with political fixer and one-time interesting person Sig Rogich, he was part of the brain trust that got Jim Gibbons elected governor in 2006, partly by running false ads about his opponent Dina Titus in an effort to exploit ugly anti-immigration sentiments. (Titus is now easily found in Congress — supporting immigration reform. As for the whereabouts of Jim Gibbons, few people know; fewer care.)

More recently, Sharron Angle treated Nevadans to the most racist, deliberately anti-Latino political campaign of any major party Senate candidate in the 2010 election. And as if her televised images of smiling blond children juxtaposed with surly-looking tattooed toughs with brown skin scaling a chained link fence were not enough to get out the Latino vote (it was; Angle’s campaign was inadvertently the most effective Latino GOTV effort in Nevada history to that point), a national Republican third-party group ran ads in Nevada urging Latinos “don’t vote.”

Yes, Republicans have some work to do with Latino voters.

Fortunately, a conservative group called the Hispanic Leadership Network (which is probably hiring) is happy to help. The group recently sent a memo to Republicans outlining the “dos and don’ts” of talking about Latinos. For instance, do say “undocumented immigrants.” Don’t — and this will be of particular interest to Dean Heller — call them “illegals” or use the phrase “anchor babies.”

Also — and again of interest to Heller — Republicans are now urged to quit answering questions about immigration by blurting “I’m against amnesty!”

Instead, Republicans now would like to make a distinction that hitherto wholly escaped them: Amnesty doesn’t mean everything short of rounding up undocumented immigrants at gunpoint, herding them into trucks and deporting them; amnesty means pardoning someone with no penalty at all. And since the pathway to citizenship, or the pathway to “earned” citizenship, as Obama stressfully terms it, includes fines and payment of back taxes, why, that isn’t amnesty.

For years, Republican politicians in Nevada and the nation demonized undocumented workers for political gain. And it used to work. Now that it’s backfired on them, Republicans hope that passing immigration reform will prompt Latino voters to give GOP candidates a second look. Some Democratic political animals openly worry that Republican support for reform could erode the overwhelming advantage Democrats enjoy with Latino voters.

Maybe.

But what Latino voters already know — and what Democrats should be ready to remind them — is that if productive immigration reform finally passes, it won’t be because a Republican won an election, but because a Democrat did.

HUGH JACKSON blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner and co-hosts The Agenda on KTNV Channel 3.