gop_elephantIn the political fight over immigration, a few little words can make a big difference.

So when Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart gave the Republican Party’s response in Spanish to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, he offered an immigration message that didn’t use the words “illegal” or “terrorism.”

Not so when South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivered the GOP’s response in English.

“We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally,” she said. “And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.”

Underscoring the party’s divide over the issue, Diaz-Balart, a leading House proponent of immigration reform, took a more detailed — and more subtle — approach.

“The current system puts our national security at risk and is an obstacle for our economy,” he said. “It’s essential that we find a legislative solution to protect our nation, defend our borders, offer a permanent and humane solution to those who live in the shadows, respect the rule of law, modernize the visa system and push the economy forward.”

The current system puts our national security at risk and is an obstacle for our economy

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami

Diaz-Balart, who is Cuban-American, didn’t mention refugees at all. He focused on finding a legislative compromise, a way to bring Republicans and Democrats together.

It was the Diaz-Balart his South Florida constituents know well. But his speech marked the second consecutive year in which Republicans responding to Obama didn’t sound in lock-step with each other on immigration.

In 2015, Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo talked about immigration in Spanish — while his counterpart in English, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, didn’t utter the word, miffing immigration activists.

The reaction was more subdued Tuesday, perhaps because Haley at least brought up the subject. She also noted she’s the daughter of Indian immigrants.

The two responses aren’t expected to be identical, though they had nearly been so before last year. (In 2013, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke in both languages.) Both respondents agree on themes and an overarching vision with the House speaker’s office, and trade drafts back and forth. Haley touched on the Charleston shooting. Diaz-Balart mentioned U.S. policy toward North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.

“They didn’t ask me to do a translation, because that’s not what I do,” Diaz-Balart told the Miami Herald in an interview Wednesday. “Are there some differences? Of course…. The Republican Party has become the majority in the House and Senate, which means you’re going to have diversity.”

He lauded Haley’s response — she’s considered a potential vice-presidential pick for the eventual GOP nominee — and called her immigration comments “very sensitive.”

“She talked about her immigrant parents. She’s clearly not anti-immigrant. That’s obvious,” Diaz-Balart said.

As for himself, he had to emphasize one of his signature issues: “I worked awfully hard and will continue to try to see if we can fix the broken immigration,” he said. “It’s not going to fix itself.”


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