Alberto Gonzales: GOP Turns Off Latinos From Party

The DREAM Act calls for a path to citizenship for some undocumented students. In the past, Republicans have opposed versions of the bill, but some prominent figures like former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales say the GOP needs to find its own voice on the issue. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a former Secret Service agent gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the agency and his take on the recent scandal. Dan Emmett protected three presidents and now he's written a book about his service. We'll talk to him about it in just a minute.

But first, we wanted to spend some time talking about a new turn in the always hot button issue of immigration and the question of whether undocumented youth who arrived in the U.S. as children should have a pathway to citizenship. The DREAM Act, the legislative plan to make that happen, has been introduced, revised, and debated but never approved in Congress.

It wasn't always this way, but in recent years immigration reform strategies that include a path to citizenship have been mainly introduced and supported by Democrats. They've been mainly opposed by Republicans who say they would encourage more illegal immigration. Now significant voices in the Republican Party are weighing in with their own plans. Last month, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said he was working on his own version of the DREAM Act.

And presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney says he would at least consider that idea. Another strong GOP voice on this issue is that of former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He served as White House counsel and later attorney general under President George W. Bush. He has his own plan for undocumented students to gain a pathway to legal status.

He wrote about it for Fox News Latino last week and he joins us now to tell us more about it. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ALBERTO GONZALES: It's always good to speak with you, Michel.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, this has been an issue that seems to have fallen along partisan lines in recent years. As we said, it wasn't always this way but in recent years it has been this way. Democrats have seemed to have kind of been the leading voices on this, offering a path, particularly to students. Now a number of Republicans like yourself are weighing in. Why is this the time you think to weigh in on this issue?

GONZALES: I think right now people are paying attention to what's going on in our country and part of that, I think, heightened sensitivity is because, of course, the presidential race. And I just happen to believe that this is an important issue for our country. In a post-9/11 world we need to know who is in this country. I think how we resolve immigration policy is going to affect our economy tremendously.

And I just think this is - now is a good time to talk about it. Hopefully it will force both candidates, Republican and Democrats, to talk about immigration and their vision for immigration policy for this country, which I believe is very important.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the politics of it more but I do want to talk about the substance of your plan and some of the other plans, you know, before we get to the politics, just briefly to remind people what generally the DREAM Act has called for is for people, young people who were brought here at a young age, you know, by other adults, so it was their decision to come here, can achieve a path to citizenship if they fulfill certain conditions. Military service, two years of college, something like that. What makes your plan different?

GONZALES: I'm not sure, Michel, that I have the details in mind that make my plan substantially different. What is important from my perspective, being from a border state, being a former chief law enforcement officer of this country, being Hispanic, the grandson of immigrants, is a realization or understanding that we have these children that are brought into this country through no fault of their own and they're raised here.

They have our values because they're raised here. This is the only home they've ever known and it seems to me that we need to provide some kind of pathway to opportunity as far as I'm concerned for these individuals if they meet certain conditions established by Congress. And I understand the devil is going to be in the details, but I believe these individuals should be provided some kind of pathway to citizenship and I just think it's important for both parties to acknowledge that fact.

MARTIN: Well, one thing you said in your piece is that my sense of fairness tells me we should not penalize these children for the sins of their parents; however, my sense of justice tells me we do not want the parents to benefit from those very sins. And to that end, you further say in the piece that you've already written that these young people should have a path to permanent residency. Does that mean that you're saying that they should not have an ultimate path to citizenship?

Because in fact, with that distinction they could have permanent residency but they wouldn't be necessarily in a position to sponsor other people, including their parents.

GONZALES: You know, the United States has a policy of once you become a permanent resident there is a desire that you take that extra step and ultimately become a citizen. And I don't see a compelling reason why we shouldn't provide that same opportunity for children. As I said in the piece, I do believe it's reasonable that these individuals pay a higher fee, perhaps wait a longer period of time, before they are eligible to seek citizenship.

But I don't see a compelling reason why, once they achieve permanent legal status, why they shouldn't be afforded the same opportunity as everyone else and pursue citizenship.

MARTIN: Back in December, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said that he would veto the DREAM Act if he becomes president and it crossed his desk, but just this past weekend NBC reported that he told a group of Florida Republicans that Republicans need to court Hispanic voters with specific policies including a Republican DREAM Act. And what he seems to be talking about is a path to citizenship or legal residency that is only achieved through military service. What do you think of that idea?

GONZALES: It's a starting point for negotiation. And I think that's actually been helpful from Governor Romney because, as you know, oftentimes in very tense and tough negotiations you really end up where you began. There are going to be some concessions and I view that as a helpful sign. And again, I haven't worked through it in my own mind all the details and I know that there can be a lot of controversy over the specifics of the details.

But I think it's good that we have the leadership in this country now beginning to talk about the need to provide some kind of pathway to either legal status, either permanent residency or even to citizenship. I think it's very, very important that we put as many people as we can in this country into some kind of legal status.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My guest today is Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general of the United States. We're talking about his proposal to create a pathway for some undocumented young people, mainly students, to get legal status in the U.S. Professor Gonzales - and you're currently a professor of law at Belmont University, I should mention - I want to talk about the politics now.

The polls show that President Obama has a big edge among Hispanic voters and I'd like to play a clip of you speaking at Wisconsin's Faith and Freedom Coalition event last month and some of the Republican presidential candidates were there. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF WISCONSIN'S FAITH AND FREEDOM COALITION EVENT)

GONZALES: Today I do not believe that any Republican candidate, any of the gentlemen you're listening to this morning, with respect, can win the White House without Hispanic support. And that is why - that is why it is so important that the way the party talks about issues like immigration is going to impact their future course of this party and the future course of this nation.

MARTIN: How do you think your party is talking about immigration right now during the campaign?

GONZALES: Not very well. And it's not just during the campaign. It's not just for people involved in the campaign. I think as a general matter I personally have been disappointed in the way that the party's leaders have talked about immigration. And it's not just, Michel, the message; it is the tone of the message.

It's mean. It's mean-spirited. I think it's a turn off. It doesn't really offer, it seems to me, a picture of opportunity for Hispanics in the Republican Party. And that is counterintuitive because people that I know in my community, I mean, we believe in the rule of law. We believe in secure borders. And so it's been disappointing. Personally disappointing. And I think it's been harmful to the party.

I do worry about the future of our party in terms of when you look to see, OK, where are we going to grow the party, and if we can't do a better job talking about issues like immigration, that's not a good thing for the Republican Party.

MARTIN: You know, President George W. Bush, whom you served in a number of high level positions and with whom you remain close, was known to have a sensitivity around these issues, was known to have - enjoy electoral support from many Latino voters, both Republicans and otherwise. Why do you think it's changed so much?

GONZALES: I don't know why it's changed. I think it may be because President Bush came from a border state. He understood the importance of this issue. I think someone like George W. Bush - he was the right messenger for the party. He had the right message and he had the right tone and my sense was, in talking to many of my friends in the Hispanic community - is that while they might have disagreed with George W. Bush on issues of policy, they had a sense that he sort of understood them, that he understood things that were important to the Hispanic community.

And I think for the Republican Party to generate greater support in the Hispanic community, we're going to need to have that same kind of messenger or messengers.

MARTIN: You know, just going back to the whole question of the sort of electoral politics here, a recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center found that nearly 60 percent of Latinos disapprove of the way President Obama's administration has handled deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Pew reported that there are about 30 percent more deportations than there were under the Bush administration, in which you served. So why do you think it is then that the president still has such an edge over whoever the Republican nominee is?

GONZALES: Well, again, I think not all of it has to do with the whole immigration issue, but that certainly, I think, is a contributing factor. We just haven't done a good enough job in persuading Hispanics that, in fact, they are welcome in the Republican Party and a case in point is the whole immigration debate.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you've talked to us before about this. You've talked to other interviewers about, you know, your own story. I don't know that (unintelligible) your own sort of very compelling story, an American dream, if you don't mind my sort of putting it that way. You told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in 2006 that you didn't know whether your grandparents came to this country legally from Mexico and, you know, to go from there, to being sort of the attorney general of United States is, you know, quite a remarkable story.

And I do wonder whether you feel that stories like yours still have resonance within your political party.

GONZALES: I think it does. At least I certainly hope it does. And the reason for that is because, as I travel this country, I meet so many people with stories like mine, and so I still believe strongly in the American dream, that anything is possible in this country. And in order for the Republican Party to continue to grow and to prosper into the future, it's got to be a party that, in my judgment, embraces that vision, that talks to the American people, to all kinds of ethnic groups about the American promise.

MARTIN: Alberto Gonzales served as attorney general of the United States in the administration of George W. Bush. He's currently the Doyle Rogers distinguished chair of law at Belmont University in Nashville. He's also counsel at the law firm Waller Lansden, and we reached him in Nashville.

Professor Gonzales, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

GONZALES: Always good to speak with you.

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