Lili Gil: Did Newt Gingrich Just Lock Up Millions of Potential Latino Votes?

As I tuned in to the Republican national security debate on Tuesday, in preparation for writing this opinion piece, I was ready to jot down perspectives regarding Afghanistan, terrorism, Israel and wars.

While those topics were eloquently addressed by the candidates, my heart, attention and voter gears shifted unexpectedly when Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich set the stage on immigration.

Unexpected and hopeful statements like Gringrich's “I do not believe that the citizens of the U.S. would take people that have been here for a quarter of a century, separate them from their families and expel spell them," or practical comments by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney like “I’ll staple a green card to the diploma of any immigrant who gets a masters degree," gave me goose bumps as I listened closely to a discussion of a topic that has personally torn me as a naturalized citizen and voter who finds herself struggling between parties.

While I share deeply the value system of a conservative mindset, the traditional Draconian prescriptions on immigration had kept me floating in the middle with no real political loyalties -- until today.

A topic typically perceived by Latinos as the GOP’s Achilles’ heel became a shining moment for the party.

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To date, this was the very first debate that demonstrated an approach that supports the DREAM Act and emphasizes the importance of keeping families united. Could this be the crucial moment that finally demystifies the party and opens doors for Latinos to listen closer and get engaged with the Republican Party?

The financial crisis, unemployment and frustrations over the leadership by the current administration serve as a perfect storm for the GOP to gain momentum.

As I mentioned after an earlier debate in October, the GOP has a golden opportunity to win over the Latino vote -- and it seems someone, somewhere, has finally started paying attention to the fastest growing segment and largest minority group in the U.S. that could put them in the White House.

As I mentioned in my previous op-ed, in 2008 Hispanics' 2-to-1 support for Barack Obama's presidential bid was credited with making the difference in four crucial swing states: Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

Also, it is estimated that 21.5 million Latino adults will be eligible to vote in November 2012, up from 19.5 million in 2008.

According to the 2010 Census, there are 118 existing congressional districts in which more than one-fifth of the population is Hispanic.

That is up from just 28, according to the 2000 Census, as applied to 110th Congress districts.

Furthermore, 93 of those districts are in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, the four states with the most 2012 electoral votes.

And Florida is a crucial swing state, alongside Colorado and Nevada, which have seen 41.2 percent and 81.9 percent growth in the Hispanic population, respectively, since 2000.

The opportunity becomes even more evident given that only 1 in 3 Hispanic voters strongly approves of the President, suggesting that his popularity among a constituency that was among his most ardent support base in 2008 is softening.

In addition, 53 percent of Hispanic registered voters indicated that they are less enthusiastic about President Obama now than they were in 2008.

You don’t need an economics or math degree to realize that the opportunity is real, sizable and could mean the difference for the Republican party in this election.

So what were the hopeful shining moments of the debate, which could potentially win over the millions of Latino voters that were possibly “floating in the middle” like me? Here are the highlights from a very different tone set primarily by former Gingrich:

• “We ought to have an H-1 visa that goes with every graduate degree in math, science or engineering, so that people stay here. . .Einstein came here as an immigrant.” (Gingrich)

• “I think you've got to deal with this as a comprehensive approach…You’ve got to find some system, which includes a guest worker program.” (Gingrich)

• “If you’ve been here for 25 years, you have three children and two grand-kids, you’ve been paying taxes, obeying the law and belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from the family.” (Gingrich)

• And, addressing a sticky point that lies within the DREAM Act, Gingrich spoke in favor of having a process for acquiring citizenship for undocumented youth who serve in the military. “I don’t see any reason to punish anyone who came at three years of age but who wants to serve the United States of America.” (Gingrich)

• “This is a party that loves legal immigration.” (Romney)

• “I do not believe that the people of the U.S. would take people that have been here for a quarter of a century… separate them from their families and expel them.” (Gingrich)

• “I don’t see how the party that says it is the party of the family, is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here for a quarter of a century, and I am prepared to take the heat for saying ‘let’s be humane’ in enforcing the law, without giving them citizenship, but finding a way to create legality so they are not separated from their families.” (Gingrich)

Great job and felicitaciones to el Señor Gingrich, who set the stage for a potential new wave of “LatiNewts” following! Your sound perspectives,  and compassionate and common sense approach could mean the difference not only to secure your win as the Republican nominee, but also that of the party’s at large with an important (and very influential) community -- which could ultimately result in winning the White House.

Lili Gil is an award-winning business and Hispanic market expert and business and political media contributor. She is also co-founder and managing partner of XL Alliance a multicultural strategy and marketing firm dedicated to helping business leaders navigate and enter emerging markets. Gil was recently selected by the World Economic Forum as one of only 190 Young Global Leaders identified across 65 countries for her leadership, community and business impact. You can follow Lili on twitter @liligil