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Politics & Government

Republican SOTU Responses: Immigration No, But Inmigración Sí

Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo gave the Spanish-language response to President Obama's State of the Union address. He included his support for an immigration overhaul. The English response was silent on the issue.
Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo gave the Spanish-language response to President Obama's State of the Union address. He included his support for an immigration overhaul. The English response was silent on the issue.

What do you have when the State of the Union response is assigned to an English-only advocate — but then is reprised in Spanish by someone who supports a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here unlawfully?

You have some explaining to do, that's what.

Congressional Republicans found themselves in that awkward spot Wednesday, after reporters learned that newly elected Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo's Spanish-language response to President Obama's address was not a strict translation of Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's English response. That's how Curbelo's speech originally had been advertised last week: "Rep. Curbelo will be delivering the Spanish-Language translated address of Sen. Joni Ernst response."

But by Tuesday afternoon, the House GOP's website no longer had that sentence, and Curbelo's speech wound up diverging from Ernst's in a dozen areas, according to a Miami Herald review. Those differences included biographical details (Curbelo obviously did not grow up on an Iowa farm, nor was he ever a young girl) but also some policy issues. Chief among them: immigration.

Ernst, who reportedly supported English-only efforts as a county auditor and a state senator in Iowa, did not address the topic. Curbelo, who during his campaign supported the Senate-passed immigration overhaul, called for "permanent solutions" to our immigration system, according to the Herald translation.

"Let's also work through appropriate channels to create permanent solutions to our immigration system — to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration and strengthen our economy," Curbelo said.

Democrats made hay from the disparate messages, but Republicans said it was no big deal. Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said both Ernst and Curbelo "spoke of the GOP vision of common-sense solutions and greater opportunity for everyone in this country — framed by their unique stories and experiences."

He added: "It's been done the same way since we started doing a Spanish-language response. No change."

The episode illustrates a core problem for the party. As its top leaders found in a 2013 report analyzing why Republicans lost the 2012 presidential election, the party must broaden its reach to Latinos and other minorities or face continuing problems in nationwide elections. Yet the party's base is now centered in the South and in rural districts in the rest of the country dominated by older, more conservative white voters. House members from those districts overwhelmingly oppose any citizenship opportunities for immigrants in this country illegally. Many minority voters, particularly Latinos, strongly support an immigration overhaul that includes such a pathway.

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