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Over objections from a vocal few, GOP sells conservative message in Spanish

With the rapid rise of Spanish-language media, politicians on both sides of the aisle – and on both sides of the comprehensive immigration reform debate – are increasingly reaching out to Latino voters in their native language as well as in English.

For Republicans already grappling with internal divisions about how to address comprehensive immigration reform, that can occasionally mean another complicating factor: a small but vocal "English-only" movement.

And collisions between the two can often be fodder for headlines.

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When Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida, spoke a few words of Spanish during an outdoor press conference last month, a Tea Party activist who had been attending a nearby anti-immigration reform rally reportedly instructed him to “learn English!”

Diaz-Balart, who was born to Cuban refugee parents in Florida, says he didn’t hear the comment, and he’s not interested in talking about the isolated times when someone objects to his Spanish-language outreach.

“It’s very, very rare,” he said in an interview with NBCNews.com. “And I will tell you – it’s much, much more rare now than it was 20 years ago.”

But while even the vast majority of Republicans embrace the outreach to Spanish-speaking constituents – after all, the party’s official response to this year’s State of the Union by Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio included a taping in Spanish – some argue that Spanish-language outreach is discouraging immigrants from learning English or assimilating into American culture.

“It sends the wrong message when people are being catered to in their own language,” says Bob Vandervoort, the Executive Director of advocacy group Proenglish.

His group lobbies for legislation – both at the federal and state level – to make English the official language of government business. “If you go back 100 years in this country, there was a real effort to encourage immigrants who came here to assimilate, to consider ourselves a melting pot. And we’ve gone away from that with the promotion of multiculturalism and bilingualism and I think that’s a concern.”

For bilingual Republicans, though, assimilation and Spanish-language outreach are far from mutually exclusive. They say it's most important to get their conservative message across to Latinos any way they can. Especially en Español.

“This is a traditional and historical battle that we fight, but history’s clearly on the side of assimilation,” says South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney. “Simply speaking to people in their native tongue doesn’t encourage Balkanization and it doesn’t discourage English. They want to learn English.”

A favorite of the Tea Party who became fluent in Spanish while living in Spain during college, Mulvaney says being able to speak Spanish offers Republicans an opportunity to explain their views to Latinos with “empathy,” even if they’re skeptical of policies – like the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal – that many Spanish-speakers support.

“I think if you’re able to do it in the native tongue, it gives you a certain level of credibility , that you’re not just spitting talking points,” he said. “The simple fact that you’re speaking Spanish, in many circumstances, conveys a certain credibility and a certain empathy with the Hispanic community.”

Diaz-Balart, who is working on comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the House, says Spanish-language outreach aids communication but the willingness to listen to Latino voters’ concerns is key, no matter what language lawmakers use.

“Immigration reform has become a threshold issue in parts of the Hispanic community,” he said. “Whether one listens or talks in Spanish or in English, that’s less important than the fact that one is willing to communicate and listen.”

Spanish-speaking politicians and activists on both sides of the aisle broadly agree that new immigrants should have to show English proficiency in order to become American citizens – as current law states – and all say that it’s crucial for newcomers to learn English in order to ensure success in public life and economic mobility.

Freshman Rep. Trey Radel of Florida, who learned Spanish while backpacking through Mexico in his twenties, argues that Spanish-speaking immigrants are enduring the same prejudices faced by the Italian and Irish immigrants to whom many longtime American citizens trace their own heritage. 

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"It's been the same case with every generation of immigrants that there's a backlash when people hear a language other than English, but the reality is that they all end up assimilating and becoming as American as apple pie," he said.

Data shows that, while first-generation immigrants may struggle with English, fluency jumps dramatically when it comes to their children and grandchildren.

A 2007 report by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that only 23 percent of first-generation adult Latinos say that they can carry on a conversation in English very well, but 88 percent of second-generation Latinos and 94 percent of third-generation Latinos can. 

According to the 2011 American Community Survey, about eight in ten Americans over the age of 5 speak only English in their homes. And 8.7 percent reported that they speak English less than “very well.” That means about 25 million people in the country , including about 16 million Spanish speakers, are less than fluent in English. 

That’s up from about six percent of the total population – 14 million people – whom the Census Bureau counted as speaking English less than “very well” in 1990.

Bills attempting to codify English as the official national language are perennially filed in Congress but have never been passed. The most recent iteration in the House – led by top immigration reform foe Rep. Steve King of Iowa – has 45 co-sponsors and states that government officials have an “affirmative obligation to preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the Federal Government.”

Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe introduced a similar English language amendment to the Senate's Gang of Eight immigration legislation this year but it did not get a vote before the final bill won approval; a similar measure was passed with bipartisan support as part of a 2007 attempt at immigration reform that later stalled.

Some Spanish-speaking GOP members say those attempts are missing the point.

"Honestly, I think it's redundant and a little bit of demagoguery," said Mulvaney of South Carolina.

Radel, a hip-hop enthusiast who's as comfortable chatting about Jay Z's new album as he is challenging the Obama administration's economic stimulus strategy, says that, while there's a need for "uniformity" in some aspects of public life, generally discouraging multilingualism violates conservative values.

"If you're a conservative, you should be saying that the government should not be involved in telling people what language they're going to speak to each other at home," Radel said.