MIAMI – Mitt Romney's promise to veto a measure that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants threatens to turn off some Hispanic voters, whose support could be critical in a general election match-up against President Barack Obama.
The issue is gaining prominence as the Republican front-runner heads toward the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, even though most of the state's Hispanics are Puerto Rican or Cuban-American and, thus, aren't affected by U.S. immigration law, nor view it as a priority. Still, it's a state where 13 percent of registered voters are Hispanic, where the nation's largest Spanish-language TV networks are based and where the nation's third-largest number of illegal immigrants live — intensifying the focus on Romney's position.
"Latino voters, like all voters in this country, are interested in America being an opportunity nation," Romney said Monday night during a debate in South Carolina, when asked if his promise to veto the so-called DREAM Act was alienating voters. "In my view, as long as we communicate to the people of all backgrounds in this country that it can be better, and that America is a land of opportunity, we will get those votes."
His veto promise — first made in the days before the Iowa caucuses — has hit a nerve with prominent Hispanics, and some Republicans worry that the position will turn off the growing number of Latino voters in swing-voting states, particularly in the west, who are now on the fence after backing Obama in 2008. These Republicans suggest that Romney was trying to curry favor with hardline Republican primary voters at the expense of Hispanics whose support he would need come the fall.
"If Romney's the nominee, he's going to have to come to the center and make some decisions about how to resolve that issue," said Republican Herman Echevarría, a Cuban-American who is the chief executive of a Miami-based bilingual advertising agency and a longtime local political player. "He's trying to be a conservative candidate. And if you don't become a conservative candidate, you cannot be the candidate of the Republicans. But you cannot be elected president just as a conservative candidate."
Already, there are signs of backlash.
For Colombia native Ana Rodriguez, a Miami-based graphic designer who received political asylum and will become a U.S. citizen this year, Romney's comments are precisely what motivated her to vote — against him. "Because of what I went through," Rodriguez said, "I want more people (elected) who are interested in supporting immigrants and want a more equal and fair system of immigration."
Florida DREAM Act activists, who have been among the most visible in the nation, also are promising to keep the heat on Romney as his campaign comes to the state.
And last week, at El Tropical restaurant in Miami, Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who has endorsed Romney, told a group of mostly Cuban-American GOP primary voters that the former Massachusetts governor was the only candidate who could fix the economy and protect U.S. security interests. Then, a young Colombian immigrant stepped forward and asked Diaz-Balart, who has championed immigrants' rights including the DREAM Act, how the congressman could support Romney.
"You have been such a friend to us, I just don't understand," said Juan Rodriguez, a student at Florida International University who was among a half-dozen students who walked from Miami to Washington in the winter to raise awareness of the legislation.
The exchange was caught on tape by several Spanish-language media outlets that reach viewers around the world.
Romney has arguably the toughest immigration position of any of the Republican candidates. Newt Gingrich would give legal status to illegal immigrants who have deep roots in the U.S. and lived otherwise lawfully.
Conversely, Romney has been adamantly opposed to any type of amnesty for illegal immigrants since his first White House run in 2008. Previously, he called reasonable a bipartisan proposal to allow immigrants to seek green cards in exchange for certain penalties, though he says he never officially supported such legislation.
Last year, Romney objected to the DREAM Act. But he went further in the days before the Iowa caucuses when asked if he would veto the measure.
"The answer is yes," Romney told voters then, and later referred to the measure as a handout.
While he said he does not oppose creating a path for those who serve in the U.S. military to become permanent residents, he also said he doesn't believe such individuals should be able to adjust their status by attending school, nor should they receive in-state tuition.
Since narrowly winning the Iowa caucuses, Romney has been sending Hispanics mixed messages.
He's working to woo Hispanics and convince them he's sincere in fighting for their causes, recently launching TV commercials in Florida featuring Cuban-Americans Diaz-Balart and fellow U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as his son Craig speaking in Spanish.
But, in South Carolina, he's also been campaigning with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the leading architect behind the tough Arizona-style immigration laws. Even many Latinos who support tougher immigration laws worry such measures will lead to racial profiling because they give broad leeway to law enforcement to stop anyone whom they suspect of being in the country illegally.
"This is all about his primary right now," said Benjamin Bishin, a University of California, Riverside political science professor who has long studied Cuban-American and other Latino political attitudes.
Jennifer Korn of the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network, which is co-hosting a GOP primary debate and Latino conference this month in Florida, said Romney took a risk in alienating Hispanic voters. But, she added, he's also made clear he wants to fix the broader immigration system.
"If he explains it correctly, he definitely has a chance to have the Hispanic community listen to what he has to say," she said.
He seemed to try to do just that during recent debates, saying: "I love legal immigration," but that "to protect our legal immigration system we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration."
That appeared to be enough for Peter Gonzalez, a Cuban-American commercial attorney and fiscally conservative Democrat.
"It's nice to hear a guy who the media has said is taking a harsh turn to the right on immigration say they love legal immigration," he said.