Immigration Laws for 2012
Can the GOP make a play for Latinos if Mitt Romney grabs the nomination? Creative Commons

The Republican Party has been stuck in the middle of the immigration debate for some time. On one side, there are hardliners who oppose amnesty and on the other are more moderate GOP voters who want a pathway to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in the GOP primary, understands the importance of the Latino vote in his effort to romp his rivals in the Florida primary --an ad narrated in Spanish called Nosotros touts the former Massachusetts governor's economic bonafides and features Cuban-American members of Congress.

But in South Carolina, Romney spent Monday campaigning with supporter Kris Kobach, the architect of the Draconian immigration laws states that aim to make life unbearable for undocumented immigrants. The Palmetto State is one of six that have adopted Kobach's laws.

Romney, in turn, embraced the endorsement, putting out a statement last week saying touting Kobach as a conservative leader willing to stand up for the rule of law and who will help him take forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration.

It seems that for the first time in decades, the GOP standard bearer will have taken positions that are openly antagonistic to a the concerns of a demographic that made up 7.4 percent of the electorate in the 2008 elections and is the fastest growing minority group in the U.S.

Romney is against providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and promised to veto the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. This could turn off Latino voters who may determine the winner of a group of Southwestern states, and perhaps the election.

Unlike previous presidential elections, this year's race is taking place in the midst of a battle between the Obama administration and states that adopted Arizona's Draconian immigration law, which is tougher than any past legislative efforts to curb immigration. Latino families have already relocated from states that have enacted these laws.

And even though a majority of Latinos disapprove of the Obama administration's record level of deportations, the president would get 68 percent of their vote against Romney, according to a December report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

You would think Republican candidates would learn by now that Latinos are going to vote with who they feel safe with, said Dee Dee Garcia-Blase, founder of Somos Republicans, a grassroots organization that endorsed Newt Gingrich Monday.

Where the GOP is Not Like Reagan

Romney's hardline on immigration is a departure from the other Republicans who made it to the top of the ticket over the last several elections.

In a 1980 Republican primary debate, candidates Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush called for sensitivity while devising a solution to the problem of undocumented immigration. These are good people, strong people; part of my family is a Mexican, Bush said. Reagan went on, as president, to sign a law giving amnesty to 3 million who had come to the U.S. illegally.

And though the GOP standard-bearer in 1996, Sen. Bob Dole, the man who helped Reagan pass immigration reform, tacked hard to the right on immigration, he rejected a plank of his party's platform against birthright citizenship to U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

The 2004 election was high point for the Republican Party's efforts to attract Latino voters, when George W. Bush was able to crack 40 percent of the Latino vote.

The next Republican to carry the party banner, John McCain, had high hopes for attracting Hispanics. Yet during a bruising primary season, he ditched his long-time support the DREAM Act and shirked his reputation as a Republican leader of immigration reform, refining his stance to insist that the border be secure first.

McCain lost the Hispanic vote with 31 percent and later went on to embrace Arizona's immigration law passed in 2010 during his primary challenge in the midterm elections that swept many Republicans into office.

Yet even McCain still says he supports immigration reform, telling MSNBC after his Romney endorsement that the GOP has to fix our problem with the Hispanics by dealing with immigration in a humane and caring fashion.

Romney defended his immigration stance at Monday's debate in South Carolina and rebutted the idea that he would alienate Latino voters.

Look, I want people to know I love legal immigration, Romney said. But to protect our legal immigration system we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration and I will not do anything that opens up another wave of illegal immigration.

The Republican Party is certainly not conceding the vote to Obama. The Republican National Committee this month laid out a plan to work with community leaders and for a get-out-the-vote operation in contested states with large Latino populations. The RNC also hired an outreach coordinator, Bettina Inclan. But don't expect the DREAM Act to be mentioned in the outreach efforts.

This election is going to be about the economy, about jobs, Inclan told the Miami Herald.

Changing Electorate

Though Romney expressed confidence that Latinos will still gravitate to his campaign's message of economic opportunity, the Pew report shows that they overwhelmingly want a path to citizenship.

Nearly half wanted an immigration policy that gave equal weight to a path to citizenship and stronger border security and immigration enforcement. On the DREAM Act, 91 percent of Latinos are in support of the bill. Most native born Latinos also support the bill, the Pew study said.

For the 2012 election, the number of eligible Latino voters will hit 21.7 million, Pew estimated. That is nearly triple the number of eligible Latino voters in 1988.

If Obama maintains his Latino support against Romney, his reelection prospects could be bolstered, even if he loses swingy Midwestern states and Florida. Obama's road to 270 electoral votes could cut through the Southwest, ensuring that the president holds onto Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, while making a play for Arizona. If population trends continue, the Southwest could replace the Midwest as the swing states presidential contenders must win.

Garcia-Blase of Somos Republicans said the Republican Party can no longer take a hard line on immigration policy while solely relying on Cubans in Florida to be the core of its Latino support.

You can't go through that route, she said, and win the Southwest.