Santorum's Anti-Immigrant Pander Hurt Him in Puerto Rico

Santorum showed not just a little xenophobia, but also a misunderstanding of history, with his remarks in Puerto Rico.

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¿Es Rick Santorum popular en Puerto Rico?

Apparently not. The island's GOP primary electorate overwhelmingly  favored former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the weekend primary contest. Santorum campaigned there, and might have had a shot at a good showing, since Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly Catholic. But the former Pennsylvania senator showed not just a little xenophobia, but also a misunderstanding of history, when he waded into the debate over English as the national language.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Rick Santorum.]

Santorum told El Nuevo Dia newspaper last week:

I have no doubt that one of the requirements that will be put forth to Congress is a requirement that English would be universal here on the island. That doesn't mean that people can't speak Spanish in their homes, or in their business, or on the street, but that everyone would have a proficiency in English.

That riled up Puerto Ricans enough, but Santorum made it worse the next day, when he explained to reporters:

This needs to be a bilingual country, not just a Spanish-speaking country. Right now, it is overwhelmingly just Spanish.

[ Read: Santorum Camp Tries to Capitalize on Gaffe]

Puerto Rico, of course, is not a country. It is a U.S. territory, which is why people there get to vote in presidential primaries. They don't pay federal taxes and don't get to vote in the general election. They do, however, serve in the U.S. armed forces—Puerto Ricans have served in every war the United States has been involved in since World War I, and 10,000 islanders currently are on active duty in the armed forces.

And they mainly speak Spanish, which seems to irk Santorum. But why should Puerto Rico have to meet the unique condition of having an English-speaking electorate if it votes in favor of statehood? No other state has had to meet that requirement as a condition of statehood. With certain exceptions, those seeking U.S. citizenship must have a knowledge of English (and must pass a test on U.S. history and government). But these are requirements for individuals, not a territory. And how would an English requirement standard be assessed? Would someone go to Puerto Rico and force every woman, man, and child to take a language test?

[ See pictures of Rick Santorum.]

Santorum's comments did not please Puerto Ricans, but it's quite possible that his remarks weren't directed at the island's primary electorate at all, but rather at the anti-immigrant voters on the mainland. Of course, citizens of Puerto Rico are not immigrants. They are U.S. citizens already, even without the benefits and burdens of statehood. But at a time when an unfortunately large segment of the public is rebelling against anything "other—to the point where a mixed-race president is still being wrongly accused of illegally ascending to the White House without a valid U.S. birth certificate—demonizing the Spanish-speakers is sure to whip up some votes. Perhaps Puerto Rico will one day become a state, and if so, many of its residents most likely will learn English, anyway—not as a legal requirement, but because it just makes sense for professional growth and mobility. And candidates like Santorum will need to learn a few words of an "other language as well. They could start with "lo siento."