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Spanish-Language Response Highlights GOP Divide On Immigration


Nikki Haley wasn't the only Republican to deliver a response to the president's State of the Union address. Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart gave his response in Spanish. The two Republicans' speeches were nearly identical, except on the question of immigration. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Here's more of what Governor Haley had to say about immigration.


NIKKI HALEY: We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in type refugees whose intentions cannot be determined. We must fix our broken immigration system.

FLORIDO: The Florida congressman's comments on immigration were very different.


MARIO DIAZ-BALART: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said it's obvious that our immigration system needs to be reformed. And he went on to say it was essential to find a legislative solution that defends the nation's borders and offers a permanent and humane solution to those in the country illegally.

GABRIEL SANCHEZ: Well, I think it represents the overall difficulty that the Republican Party is having with courting Latino votes.

FLORIDO: This is Gabriel Sanchez, a professor at the University of New Mexico and a researcher with the polling firm Latino Decisions.

SANCHEZ: They realize that on the issue of immigration, they have a splintered party.

FLORIDO: It's a divide that's only grown wider as the anti-immigrant rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump has moved several of his competitors to the right on the issue. Congressman Diaz-Balart is one of the few people Republicans in Congress who still speaks openly about the need for immigration reform. Sanchez says that having Diaz-Balart send the message that Republicans still care about it was a way of repudiating Donald Trump, but he says a big question is whether Latino voters will buy it.

SANCHEZ: It's going to be difficult, largely because there's been so much damage already done.

FLORIDO: Luis Alvarado is a Republican strategist who focuses on drawing more Latinos into the party. He says last night was an opportunity for Republicans to reach Latinos disaffected by the president's failures on immigration.

LUIS ALVARADO: For those who care about immigration reform - and they listened to the president's speech - they continue to be disappointed because they see others in the Democratic Party getting what they wanted, and Latinos were left behind. And that is why Latinos are now up for grabs.

FLORIDO: He says it was important for the Spanish-speaking audience to hear Diaz-Balart sound a hopeful note about the prospect of a Republican president passing immigration reform. And also to suggest that reform is more likely with a Republican president if Congress stays in Republican hands.

ALVARADO: So Democrats have something to worry, unless, of course, Republicans nominate a bombastic candidate that no one will be able to support.

FLORIDO: But UC Berkeley professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla says the fact that the hopeful immigration message was found only in the Spanish address tells her it was insincere.

LISA GARCIA BEDOLLA: I just didn't understand why they needed to be different, given framing, given who was delivering those messages. And so the fact that they were different, I think, was a political calculation. That suggests a level of cynicism or at least, I think, a level of disrespect towards Latino voters in terms of their ability to really know what the positions of the Republican Party are.

FLORIDO: She says if the intention was to signal to Latino voters the Republican Party respects them, it could backfire. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.