It seemed inevitable that immigration would come up at the Republican presidential candidates' confab last week in Arizona, a state at the epicenter of a debate over what to do with the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Arizona ignited a national controversy in 2010 when its Republican-controlled legislature passed a tough new law, SB 1070, that among other things empowered police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Immigration advocates condemned the law and the U.S. Justice Department sued to block it, but other states, including Alabama and Georgia, have emulated Arizona by enacting new immigration laws of their own.
At the Feb. 22 debate in Mesa, moderator John King of CNN asked Mitt Romney where he stood on the issue.
You know, I think you see a model in Arizona, said Romney.
A few members of the debate audience cheered, but Romney's words aren't likely to have played well among voters who could be pivotal in choosing America's next president: Latinos.
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The 2010 Census chronicles explosive growth in the U.S. Latino population: The number of Hispanics living in the nation grew by an estimated 43 percent during the 10 years beginning in 2000 -- more than four times the rate by which the United States' overall population increased over the course of the decade.
That trend could play a decisive role in a few swing states that President Barack Obama's campaign is hoping to win after converting them to Democratic blue in 2008. Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico have seen substantial growth in their Latino populations over the past decade; in Virginia and North Carolina, the rate was nearly 100 percent.
Demographics may be bolstering Obama's chances, but the Republican Party's actions and rhetoric also appear to be helping. The would-be nominees have heartily embraced Arizona's enforcement-first approach, which is deeply unpopular among Latinos. They have courted Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio, the notorious immigration hard-liner whose office was accused of systematic discrimination after a federal investigation.
Many Republicans strenuously oppose any form of relief for undocumented immigrants, arguing that this would lead to amnesty. Romney and his rival Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, are against all or most of the DREAM Act, a bill that would offer citizenship to some immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Both candidates lambasted Texas Gov. Rick Perry for offering in-state tuition to undocumented Texas immigrants.
You've got one party courting the vote and another party pushing the vote away, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what's going to happen here, said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. There's going to be a groundswell of Latino voters and they're probably going to vote Democrat.
Democrats have historically fared better among Latinos, but George W. Bush was able to make significant inroads in 2004 with his brand of compassionate conservatism and his call for comprehensive immigration reform. He won a larger share of the Latino vote, between 40 percent and 44 percent, than any Republican presidential candidate since Latino first became a distinct category in 1976.
That goodwill may have since dissipated. DeeDee Garcia Blaze, founder of the organization Somos Republicans, said the Arizona law was a turning point. She has been traveling across the U.S. Southwest trying to register Latino voters at universities, street festivals and churches, and said that for many potential voters, the Republican brand has been damaged.
When it comes time for people to write down their party affiliation, Blaze said, What I'm hearing 99% of the time -- and believe me, I'm a Republican -- is democrata, democrata, democrata.
That anti-immigrant bill woke the sleeping immigration giant, Blaze said. So all these states implementing these anti-immigrant, anti-Latino laws -- they're stirring us up.
Maribel Hastings has reached a similar conclusion. Hastings, a senior adviser for the pro-immigration-reform organization America's Voice, has been speaking to prospective Latino voters in Nevada and Colorado and found that for many of them, The Republican party is not an option.
Many Latino voters get their information from Spanish-language media outlets that have devoted ample coverage to the new state immigration laws and to the immigration positions of the Republican presidential candidates, Hastings said.
They are paying very careful attention, she said. They're aware of what is going on and they do relate those issues to Republicans.
That's not to say Obama's immigration record has been perfect in the eyes of many Latinos. He has failed to deliver, some say, on his promise to pursue immigration reform, blaming the intransigence of Republicans in Congress. At the same time, he has presided over an unprecedented number of deportations.
Even if you look at some of the more Democratic or liberal Hispanic groups, they're very disappointed with him, said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. [The Obama campaign] is going to have to come up with a real reason, besides 'It's the Republicans' fault,' why he didn't pass immigration reforms, and then what he is going to do if he gets re-elected.
The U.S. economy is also paramount for many Latino voters. Hispanics have suffered disproportionately from soaring home-foreclosure rates and double-digit unemployment, providing another source of anger and disappointment with the Obama administration.
Immigration is an issue of concern to Latinos but it is not the issue of concern, said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an academic and political commentator. There is this general array of issue areas that Latinos are considering, and not unlike non-Latino voters, Latinos care about the economy.
She added that Latinos are more likely to favor the federal government's playing an active role in economic policy. A Univision/ABC News poll found that a sizable majority of Latino voters nationwide believe that stimulating the economy with federal money is more likely than tax cuts to produce economic growth.
The economic policy that the Republican Party espouses tends to not be the one most Latinos support, Soto said.
Getting potential Latino voters registered and mobilizing them to turn out on Election Day remains a huge task; the outcome could hinge on voter turnout. But even with the economy still shaky and Obama having overseen nearly 400,000 deportations in 2011 alone, most observers believe the Latino vote is Obama's to lose.