Immigration Remains A Dicey Issue For Romney, GOP

At a recent GOP candidate forum in Wisconsin before the state’s primary, one of the speakers was someone not on the ballot, but he had strong words for the GOP regarding its low standing with Hispanic voters.

Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the first Hispanic to hold the nations highest law enforcement post, and his message to the Republican candidates was direct.

“The way the party … talks about immigration is going to impact the future course of this party and the future course of this nation,” Gonzales said.

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 instate 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, according to Gonzales 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 this web announcement about the effort, and prominent Hispanic Republicans in Congress are speaking out, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

“So 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 is a Cuban-American and 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’

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 Rommey campaign has described Kobach gives some clues as to how they are wrestling with immigration today. Early on, he was an adviser, but more recently he’s just a supporter, according to the campaign. Now, they say he’s an informal adviser.

Kobach helped write the controversial Arizona law SB 1070, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

Citing a recent survey from Quinnipiac, Kobach says that among Independent voters, 48 percent favor Gov. Romney’s position on immigration versus only 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 Sen. 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 President Obama’s handling of the economy has been bad for the country and for Hispanics.

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