In Florida, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is airing campaign commercials in Spanish telling Hispanics he’s “one of us.” In South Carolina, he is touting the endorsement of Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration activist who helped spearhead state laws that have sparked anger among Latinos.
Romney’s straddle reflects a dilemma he and the Republican Party face if he becomes the nominee: that his aggressive stance against illegal immigration during the primaries may become a drag on efforts to appeal to Hispanics whose votes could determine the outcome of the presidential race in states such as Colorado, Virginia and Florida. Nationally, 12.2 million Hispanics are expected to vote in 2012, a 26 percent increase over 2008.
“The conventional wisdom and the general fear is right, that some Republicans, and some of the most important Republicans with the loudest microphones, are digging a very big hole for themselves that’s going to be hard to get out of,” said Tamar Jacoby, a Republican immigration specialist who has advised Arizona Senator John McCain and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the issue and is neutral in this year’s race.
Romney “is unfortunately taking one of the harshest tones,” added Jacoby, who heads ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of employers pressing for new laws on the issue. “I have some hope for a course correction, but I think right now, for many Latinos, all they can hear is that off-putting first statement that really translates into, ‘We don’t like people who look and sound like you.’”
‘Follow the Law’
During a debate in Myrtle Beach last night, Romney stood by his stance, saying he opposes any measure allowing undocumented workers -- or their children -- a chance to stay in the U.S. or obtain citizenship quickly.
“We have to follow the law and insist that those who have come here illegally ultimately return home, apply, get in line with everyone else” to gain legal status, Romney said. “To protect our legal immigration system, we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration.”
Romney also rejected the idea that his position would alienate Hispanic voters, provided his message is coupled with a vow that he will improve economic growth. “As long as we communicate to the people of all backgrounds in this country that it can be better, and that America is a land of opportunity, we’ll get those votes,” he said.
That message may resonate with Republican voters in South Carolina, which holds its primary Jan. 21 and was home to the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic population during the past decade, according to the 2010 Census. The 148 percent increase in the number of Hispanics in the state between 2000 and 2010 has prompted anti-immigrant fervor that increases the risk for a Republican candidate to stray from a restrictive stance on illegal immigration in a primary.
“The opinions of a good percentage of the base is such that a candidate would be harmed more by taking a more liberal or softer stance than they would be advantaged by taking a harder line and advocating no pathway to citizenship, a border fence and those kinds of proposals,” said Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political scientist.
Republican presidential candidates of the recent past -- including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, who all won election, and McCain, the unsuccessful 2008 nominee -- favored creating a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented workers. All sought to appeal to Hispanic voters, a constituency that has traditionally backed Democrats.
In 2000, Bush drew about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote and almost 40 percent in 2004, while McCain -- who backed off his advocacy for a path to citizenship during his presidential run -- found support among 31 percent in 2008, according to a Pew Research Center report.
The Hispanic population almost doubled over the last decade in Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia, states President Barack Obama won in 2008 after they went for Bush in 2004, census data show. Latino voters, while they lag behind Caucasian and African-American voting levels, are also stepping up their political participation.
Nationally, they accounted for about 7.4 percent of the electorate in the 2008 elections, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The exit polling found that 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama.
This year, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, Hispanic participation could reach 8.7 percent of total votes cast. The group projects that at least 12.2 million Hispanics will cast ballots this year.
A Univision News/Latino Decisions poll conducted Oct. 21 to Nov. 1 found Romney drawing support from 24 percent of Latino voters in a hypothetical match-up with Obama, who won 67 percent.
By contrast, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has attacked his rivals in the primaries for taking more permissive stances on illegal immigration, painting himself as the candidate best able to seal the borders and the one who will crack down hardest on the estimated 12 million people who have entered the country illegally.
He criticized Texas Governor Rick Perry for backing a law in his state allowing undocumented workers’ children who have lived in the state for three years and graduated from a local high school to pay in-state tuition at public universities, provided they apply for U.S. citizenship.
He branded as “amnesty” Gingrich’s proposal to permit some law-abiding, English-speaking illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 25 years and have civic and religious ties in their communities to become U.S. citizens.
In Iowa, an outside group that supports Romney, Restore Our Future, spent more than $909,000 airing 1,694 negative ads on the issue of immigration, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. Included among those ads was one that opened with criticism of Perry and Gingrich and ended with the line: “Gingrich and Perry, too liberal on immigration.”
After once holding leads in national opinion polls, Gingrich and Perry came in fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Iowa caucuses.
Romney, who once described as “reasonable” a George W. Bush proposal to allow some immigrants to stay in the country and gain legal status, also says he would veto the so-called DREAM Act, which would give young people who were brought here illegally as children a way to gain legal status if they enroll in college or enlist in the military.
He said on Jan. 11 that he was “proud” to earn the endorsement of Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped draft illegal-immigrant crackdown laws in Alabama and Arizona that include provisions obligating police to check on individuals’ status on “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country illegally.
Romney told South Carolinians on Jan. 13 that he would back their state’s similar law aimed at identifying and acting against illegal immigrants that is being challenged in federal court by the Obama administration. “I believe that if the federal government is failing in its duty to protect our borders, then states have to take action to protect their citizens,” Romney said in Hilton Head.
“Ours is the party of legal immigration. We like people coming here legally, and we want to stop illegal immigration so we can protect legal immigration in this country,” he added to loud applause.
More Inclusive Tone
Romney and the Republican Party may attempt to pivot in the general election to a more inclusive tone, and advisers are planning elaborate outreach efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters through social media.
“Of course immigration -- we need to talk about it, but at the end of the day, this election is going to be about the economy,” said Bettina Inclan, named Jan. 11 as the Republican Party’s director of Hispanic outreach. She contended that disappointment with Obama is high among Latino voters who have seen their lives worsen during his term.
“It comes down to swing states and small margins. Hispanic voters are going to be swing voters in these very important states,” including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and North Carolina, she said.
Those are the very places some party strategists, activists and immigration experts argue that Republicans will have the biggest challenge.
Somos Republicans, an Arizona-based Republican grassroots organization, endorsed Gingrich yesterday, saying that Romney “takes an non-humanitarian approach to the DREAM Act and legal immigration reform,” and vowing to “veto Romney at the polls” in return for his promise to veto the DREAM Act.