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Immigration Remains A Dicey Issue For Romney, GOP

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Tempe, Ariz., on Friday.
Jae C. Hong
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Tempe, Ariz., on Friday.

At a Republican candidates' forum in Wisconsin before the state's primary earlier this month, a speaker who wasn't on the ballot had strong words for the GOP regarding its low standing among Hispanic voters.

"The way the party ... talks about immigration is going to impact the future course of this party and the future course of this nation," said former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the first Hispanic to hold the nation's highest law enforcement post.

Gonzales didn't mention any candidate by name, but during the Republican primaries, none staked out a tougher position on immigration than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"Of course we build a fence, and of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who come here illegally," Romney said at a debate in Tampa last year. "That only attracts people to come here and take advantage of America's great beneficence."

In another debate, Romney touted his 2006 agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to allow Massachusetts State Police troopers to enforce immigration laws to, as he put it, "make sure those people who we arrest are put in jail, to find out they're here illegally, we're going to get them out of here."

It might be a position designed to win votes in Republican primaries, but it hurts the party in the long run, Gonzales said in an interview with NPR.

"Anything you say, any campaign position you take, there are going to be consequences," he said. "I think given the current trajectory, if there's not a change in course, the consequences are not going to be good ones for a Romney presidency, at least with respect to Hispanic votes."

The GOP Message

In recent days, there have been hints of a change of course. The Republican National Committee announced an expanded outreach program targeting Hispanic voters in states with large Hispanic populations, like New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.

The RNC posted an online announcement about the effort, and prominent Hispanic Republicans in Congress, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, are speaking out.

"I am concerned, because there is this growing demographic in America who I think — at a minimum — we should be competitive in and we're not," Rubio said at a forum in Washington sponsored by the National Journal magazine. Rubio, a Cuban-American, is widely viewed as a potential running mate for Romney.

"I think what needs to happen is a permanent commitment that we are going to take the time and energy in the long term to make this argument about why limited government and free enterprise is the right answer to their desires [and] their aspirations," he said.

Rubio is also trying, however, to soften his party's image on the issue of immigration by proposing an alternative to the White House-backed Dream Act.

'Stay The Course'

But some of Romney's backers are urging him not to soften his stand on immigration. Kris Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas and an aggressive proponent of strong immigration laws with strict enforcement, says Romney should "stay the course" on his immigration position.

The way the Romney campaign has described Kobach — who helped write the controversial Arizona law, SB 1070, that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this week — gives some clues as to how it is wrestling with immigration. Early on, Kobach was an "adviser"; more recently, he was just a "supporter," according to the campaign, and now he's called an "informal adviser."

Citing a recent survey from Quinnipiac, Kobach says that among independent voters, 48 percent favor Romney's position on immigration versus 33 percent who favor President Obama's position on immigration.

"Clearly he's winning with Independent voters by taking a law enforcement-oriented approach, and independent voters will decide who becomes president in the fall," Kobach says.

Whether Romney keeps his previous hard line on immigration now that his nomination seems assured remains to be seen. On Monday, he campaigns with Rubio in Pennsylvania, but on Friday he did more listening than talking when he met with Hispanic business owners in Arizona.

One thing does seem clear: Both he and the Republican Party want to shift the focus away from immigration, hoping to win votes with the argument that Obama's handling of the economy has been bad for the country and for Hispanics.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.