Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva has developed a reputation as a blunt, staunch liberal since being elected to represent his state’s 7th District in 2003.
His outspokenness garnered him national headlines in 2010, when he called for an economic boycott of Arizona following the passage of SB1070, the controversial immigration law that has spurred a lawsuit by the Justice Department and is set to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in April.
The son of a Mexican migrant worker, Grijalva is also known as one of the long-time leaders of the Latino community in the Southwest.
Fox News Latino spoke with the congressman earlier this week as he was traveling through his district.
FOX NEWS LATINO: Last week Fox News Latino released a poll in which they matched up the remaining Republican candidates against President Obama, and none of them scored above a 14 percent likely voter rating. What do you think of those results and what does that mean for the Republican field as it tries to relate to the Latino community?
Rep. Raul Grijalva: I think the Republican field all through these primaries have boxed themselves into a corner with regard to the Latino community.
They tried to out-hard each other on issues like immigration, their positions on education, their positions on the issues of jobs and opportunity – they boxed themselves into a corner.
So regardless of who wins the primaries, their deficit is obvious but it’s self-created.
It is not a deficit you’re going to gloss over by putting a Hispanic as a VP candidate, it’s not going to be glossed over by trying to mitigate the points that you’ve made because they’re going to hear that rhetoric from the Obama campaign and from us Democrats – the rhetoric and all those clips from their debates over and over and over again.
This was a conscious political calculation on the part of the Republicans and their presidential aspirations to take this line. They took it and now you’ve seen the consequences of taking that line.
FNL: What issue has resonated with the Latino community more? The Dream Act? Immigration?
Grijalva: The issue of immigration, you have to deal with that issue because it’s front and center on this whole debate.
Even for us, who are Latinos born in this country – fourth, fifth generation Latinos that have been born in this country – the issue is relevant and important because of its implications.
It deals with who you are, and that isolation of that group, politically speaking – in terms of the issue of immigration and the very, very hard rhetoric that you’ve heard on the issue and the marginalizing and criminalizing of people on that issue – people take that personally.
Whether there’s security in terms of being fourth or fifth generation in this country becomes irrelevant.
Whether you’re a Puerto Rican and automatically have citizenship; whether you’re a Cuban that touches the soil and automatically has status in this country, that does not matter because that becomes an affront and an attack on a group of people as opposed to the issue of immigration.
The issue of education is about opportunity. It is always the gateway for every immigrant group in this country. It certainly continues to be the gateway for the Latino community, so people’s position is about investing in that issue. And Obama’s effort to invest in that issue despite resistance from Congress is seen as a positive.
And the jobs issue, who’s the hardest community hit by unemployment? Who’s the hardest community hit by foreclosure? Who’s the hardest community hit by this whole economic issue? It’s been the Latino community.
So when you assess who’s saying what, and you have on the part of the Republican candidates a defense of the lending institutions, a rejection of some oversight and regulatory control over what lending institutions and Wall Street is doing, and you begin to see that door of opportunity closing.
And when you see the defunding of education, when you see a tax against Title One, which deals with the poorest children in this country and Head Start; of course you’re going to make those conclusions.
I’m so glad this is happening now in a very personal way for me, because there’s always been this cattle call mentality – and my party’s been guilty of it, too.
You put a surname up, they say this is good for you and you’re going to come vote for them.
Well, that time finally – and gratefully – is over. The ability of our community to discern between who’s on your side and who is not is highly elevated, and the immigration issue brought us to that ability to discern.
And I think that’s why [Republicans] are suffering, as a party, political consequences and huge loss of support from the 40 percent that Bush got to the merely 12 to 14 percent right now.
That is a shift, a gap, that I don’t think the rest of the presidential election is going to close, quite frankly.
FNL: You mentioned even if Republicans put a Latino like Marco Rubio on the ticket, it won’t have any effect. The rhetoric coming out of the Republican party seems to disagree with that as Rubio’s name is constantly being thrown out there as a VP candidate. Do you think his stance and comments on the Dream Act are going to affect his standing within the Latino community?
Grijalva: I think his comments on the Dream Act will.
His comments, his less than genuine comments, on his lineage and how his parents got here is not going to play well.
All of us know they were refugees, but they were already here.
As a refugee from Cuba, and as a national policy, if you touch the sand you have status and protected status in this country as a refugee.
Those are not going to hit in places where you have populations of people who are struggling to make their status permanent and legal in this country. I think that dynamic is more hurtful than his position on immigration because that’s disingenuous what he did.
He used his lineage, his cultural and racial lineage, as an advantage and it backfired on him.
Why I say that, because a surname is not going to change the dynamic and the conversations that have already been done by the Republican Party. You know there’s going to be a platform this party has to adopt and regardless of how nice and how good your Spanish is on radio and TV, there’s a platform attached to your party.
And mark my word, the issue on immigration, the issue on education, the issue on jobs, it’s going to be harsh and it’s going to be, as the community perceives it, not in their favor of opportunity and not into the favor of their family.
That will shift that discussion very much. The Latino community is thinking about the next step. That’s why when you do polling, immigration comes in number four.
There’s an urgency to that issue, but there’s also a huge urgency to the future. This particular family might not have everything thing they need to sustain themselves and have the pure American middle class dream, but they have that dream for their kids. And suddenly you’re closing the door not just on them, but on the future generation. That is a very, very powerful sentiment.
FNL: You mentioned the Latino community knows who’s on their side. What has President Obama or the Democrats done for the Latino community since he’s taken office?
Grijalva: Not enough. Not enough.
They passed the Dream Act out of the House, and three or four Democrats in the Senate kept it from getting to the desk for the President to sign it.
Comprehensive immigration reform, too. We had Democrats in the House who were so afraid of that issue they couldn’t bring themselves to support it or allow it to proceed.
That’s absolutely true. I don’t argue the point.
But I think what the Latino voter is discerning, and there’s this new ethic about discerning who’s who and who’s on your side, there is an A for effort.
And I think in terms of effort and pushing that agenda, Democrats can’t be held guilty for the effort.
Is the result what we wanted? No. But has there been an effort on the part of the Republican Party? No. Has there been obstruction on the part of the Republican Party? Yes.
Has there been an unwillingness to compromise, even on the number of visas? Has there been a willingness to compromise on the Dream Act? No.
So you get to the point where you see where is the effort and where is the push coming from and where is the resistance coming from, the distinctions are so clear. It’s an advantage for Democrats, absolutely.
FNL: Given the drop in Latino support from the Bush era that you mentioned, have Republicans done irreparable harm to their stance within the Latino community?
Grijalva: Generational, no question about that.
There’s kids growing up right now who come from a blended family where one of their parents are not fully documented to be in this country, yet they’re citizens.
There are 3.5 million of those kids running around this country right now. They’re citizens yet their full family is not fully documented.
You think that generation hasn’t learned a listen from this? You don’t think they’ve learned who was pushing for them and trying to protect them? And who was after their parents?
This is kids growing up in this generation, and everybody around them in the community has watched that experience.
So, yeah, I think it’s a generational damage to the Republican Party that it’s done to itself.
The gap with Latinos that has increased, the gap with women that has increased, has been a direct result of the Republican Party not wanting to moderate their tone, but to push into a fringe position to try to win a primary in a presidential election.
Well, that victory is hard won, but it’s also created the hard losses that they’re going to have because those two gaps are critical in this next upcoming election.
FNL: Being based in Southern Arizona, you were close to the Gabby Giffords shooting and at the time there was a lot of discussion about changing the tone in politics. Has the tone gotten better or worse?
Grijalva: It hasn’t gotten better since Gabby’s shooting, no it hasn’t.
Some of us, and I include myself in that group, did our part.
We understand that rhetoric has consequences. Rhetoric has meaning. So some people have learned to bite their tongue and turn the discussion into a debate on policy issues and try to do it with as much civility as possible, but the same saber-rattling on immigration, same saber-rattling on issues dealing with women, same saber-rattling on the President is not born in this country and therefore is illegitimate to be President of the United States (including right here in the state of Arizona) – that same saber-rattling continues.
I would suggest that would be an important step on the most divisive issues that face our society – not necessarily our body politic, but our society.
To continue that hard saber-rattling for a political wedge issue and perceived advantage (which I think is going turn into a disadvantage very quickly and it’s becoming that), you continue that rhetoric, it hasn’t gotten better.
FNL: Do you think it ever will?
Grijalva: I think there’s a lesson in 2012.
There’s a lesson about compromise, that it’s give and take, not just [take]. There’s a lesson to be learned with the American people’s frustration with Congress not doing anything.
There’s a lesson to be learned about dealing with each other on these really divisive issues in a factual, clean, hard debate.
I would love that opportunity. I would love the opportunity to not react on these issues based on my sense of having to be defensive or being protective of groups of people that I think are being picked on.
If we get to that point with issues in Congress, and I think 2012 will help define that, that it’s about getting things done for the greater good as opposed to narrowly defining our country by a very limited, either theological approach to politics or a very fringe approach to politics, I think we can get things done.
Look, what I want out of comprehensive reform I’m not going to get. But what should be done is possible.
FNL: You brought up the birther investigation by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. What are your thoughts on that and what are the rumblings you hear about that within your circles?
Grijalva: It’s Arpaio political posturing at its best.
When under siege from a grand jury, when under siege from a federal investigation, when under siege by the fact that you did not investigate 400 sex crimes (many of them on children) in area of Maricopa [County] that’s predominately Latino – hey, you’ve [got] some problems, Sheriff.
So his strategy is “Let’s take the attention away from me, and put the attention on this issue.”
A non-issue, an issue that only raises the hair of the very fringe on this whole thing – even my good, conservative Republican friends here in Tucson think it’s a stupid issue. [They say,] “We’ve got bigger fights ahead of us with you guys, with you Democrats. We have bigger fights. We’re wasting our time.”
So this kind of rhetoric, unfortunately, this kind of narrow way to look at how we should do public policy has dominated the Republican primaries.
You’ve got [Mitt] Romney and all the other candidates coming in here and basically kiss the ring for Arpaio. He endorsed [Rick] Perry here, but they all said he’s doing a great job. What’s that message across the country? Not just to Latinos but to anybody who cares about ethical law enforcement? It’s embarrassing, one, and two, he’s trying to divert attention from himself.
FNL: We’ve been talking about some big issues here, and it sounds like you believe 2012 is a major turning point for this country.
I really do. I really do.
Everybody tries to magnify the current election as the most important election that ever happened, but going into the 2012 election the American people are going to have some clear choices.
And it’s not about who’s the guy in the White House after this election, it’s about what this country is going to look like after this election.
Demographics tell us what it’s going to look like.
The body politic is going to have to catch up with that change. And I think this election is going to be about what we’re going to look like. This is a future-orientated election. This is why your questions are about Latinos and why they’re so important.
When I look at that [Fox News Latino poll], when immigration was number four it did not surprise me because this is an immigrant community that’s future-looking to their ascendancy and full integration into the society.
And it should be about the future. It should be economics, it should be about education, it should be about those issues that will move that community forward.
So, yeah, within the Latino community it’s a pivotal election, and nationwide it’s defining who this nation is in the future. That is not an exaggeration, I truly feel that and if you talk to voters they feel that, too.
A freelance writer based in Phoenix, Ariz., D.B. Mitchell's work has appeared in 944, GAME and Razor magazines. In a previous life, he also worked as a correspondent for Fox Sports Arizona.
Follow D.B. Mitchell on Twitter: @DB_Mitchell