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Immigration Reform Could Be Key to Influential Latino Vote in 2008

As lawmakers return to the Senate to try to come up with an immigration reform bill that will please border security hawks, union workers and big employers, the debate could take its toll on 2008 presidential candidates who dare to ignore the Latino vote.

Registered Hispanic voters — numbering about 9 million — are poised to make a show of force in the 2008 presidential election. But with dissatisfaction over the immigration debate on the rise, Republicans who had gained ground in 2000 and 2004, largely thanks to candidate George W. Bush, are seeing their once-expanding Hispanic base shrink.

"Some of the politicians on the anti-illegal immigrant side of the fence have said some things that are not just directed at immigrants, but at all Latinos," charged Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "In the end, it could energize the Latino vote. It's certainly hurt a lot of the goodwill President (George W.) Bush helped to establish within the Republican Party."

The immigration plan has been assailed on both sides of the debate — the largely GOP faction of anti-illegal immigration forces are decrying what they describe as "amnesty" for the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the country and a lack of border enforcement in the South.

On the other hand, groups like LULAC and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, most often associated with Democrats, are complaining that the legislation not only would impose exorbitant fines and fees on undocumented workers looking for residency, but would force them to return to their home country before they can apply for legal status. The bill would also shift to a visas system that places less emphasis on family unification and more on a merits-basis that gives preference to English speakers and individuals with higher education levels.

Earlier this month, Senate leaders failed to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and move to final passage. But supporters say a fix in the legislation means more attention is now being paid to border security and law enforcement to appease the most vocal security-minded border watchers.

"This bill provides an historic opportunity to uphold America's tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants and honoring our heritage as a nation built on the rule of law," President Bush said in his weekend radio address. "We must summon the political courage to move forward with a comprehensive reform bill. By acting now, we can ensure that our laws are respected, that the needs of our economy are met, and that our nation treats newcomers with dignity and helps them assimilate."

But Bush's support may do little to shore up Latino support for the GOP, despite his role in shifting the Hispanic vote toward Republicans by 10 points or more, depending on the poll, between 2000 and 2004.

The "red meat" tossed out by members of the Republican Party to appeal to the conservative base is putting the GOP in a terrible light among Hispanic voters anticipating the 2008 election, said Danny Vargas, chairman of the Virginia chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

With the vast majority of illegal immigrants coming through Mexico over the Southwest border, the rhetoric appears to target all Hispanics, illegal or not, he said.

"I think coming at (illegal immigration) from a standpoint of categorizing whole swaths of people not only is unproductive, but it makes us come off as mean-spirited and cruel and in my heart of hearts I don’t think that’s what the majority of the party is," said Vargas, who added that unfortunately, in politics, "perception is reality."

Already, the decline has begun. Exit polls from the 2006 midterm congressional election suggest that the immigration issue, while appealing to Republican Party base, has hurt its standing among Hispanic voters, which counted for anywhere between 6 percent and 8 percent of the total midterm vote, according to various polls. A Pew Center for the People and the Press report said that in November 2006, Latino voters swung 11 points in favor of Democrats over Republicans compared to the 2004 midterm election. The immigration issue played a significant part in that, Pew suggested.

"Immigration has become an anchor issue to mobilize Latinos," as seen throughout Spanish-speaking media and the recent pro-immigrant rallies staged across the country in areas with concentrated Latino populations, said Efrain Escobedo, director of voter engagement for NALEO.

Latinos believe they are all being tarred, Escobedo said. "They are realizing the importance now, of having a voice."

Capitalizing on Latino Voter Sentiment

The Democratic candidates for president — particularly the top tier contenders in the Senate, Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York — generally support a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, are pushing for more family-friendly provisions and have expressed concern with the shift to a merit-based visa system. Democrats John Edwards, a former senator, and Hispanic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, hold similar views.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a staunch advocate for the guest worker plan, appears greatly at odds with the rest of the GOP 2008 pack.

Clinton's campaign team has already measured the importance of the Latino vote. Last month, the campaign released a poll memo that showed that along with women, Hispanics are one of Clinton's "most supportive and most important support groups."

"While George Bush captured about 40 percent of the Latino vote, Hillary is poised to reclaim the Latino vote that Democrats lost in 2004," the memo reads, citing a March Latino Policy Coalition-Lake Research Partners poll that showed a 68 percent favorability rating, well above her primary competitors.

Political analysts say the Hispanic voting bloc could have the biggest impact in the Southwest, expected to be the new battleground in 2008, particularly in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, which all have substantial Hispanic populations. An estimated 80 percent of registered Latino voters will be able to cast a primary vote on or before the Super Tuesday contests, according to a recent NALEO report.

"It's a very important vote and it can throw the election one way or another," said Terry Madonna, professor and director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "It's not just this election, but elections here on out, through to the end of the century, where elections are close and Latinos play a deciding vote."

Not everyone, however, is convinced that Hispanics are likely to move in lockstep against the GOP over the immigration issue. In fact, said veteran Republican strategist Craig Shirley, the longer Hispanic citizens have lived in the United States, the less tolerant they are toward illegal immigration and the more likely they are to oppose a reform bill that allows undocumented workers to remain in the United States and begin a path toward citizenship.

"We throw sand in their face — against their dignity and honor — if we change the rules … just to pander for a few votes, when it's not even clear we are going to get (the votes) anyway," said Shirley. "What the Republican Party should be about is principles and the rule of law and that's what people respect — strength and dignity and not making policies by chasing politics."

But Greg Segura, a political science professor at the University of Washington and an expert on minority voting trends, said Republicans make a mistake and "misperceive" Hispanics if they believe they lean Republican because they are religiously and socially conservative.

"Those social issues rank way down" below the economy, education, crime, Iraq, and immigration, said Segura.

"When you think about the Latino vote, it's actually a lot like the rest of America," said Segura. "If the GOP thinks that the abortion issue is going to save them with Latinos and then go around and bash immigrants, it’s not going to work."