Obama, Romney immigration clash gives voters distinctive options
Romney tries to cut into Obama's advantage with Hispanics

By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau
September 9, 2012


— The explosive issue of immigration reform has given President Barack Obama a clear advantage among Hispanic voters in Florida while giving many conservatives one more reason to rally behind Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Voters face a clear choice between the candidates' conflicting positions on immigration, making this one of the defining issues in this year's presidential campaign. While Obama proposes a path to citizenship for most of the state's 850,000 illegal foreign residents, Romney wants to pressure them to "self-deport."

To André Varona, a Hispanic business leader in South Florida and an undecided voter, both candidates are disappointing so far.

Obama has failed to fulfill his promise to overhaul immigration law, Varona says. And he doesn't like the Republicans' tough talk about cracking down at workplaces and driving "illegal aliens" out of the country.

"We are heavily reliant on the immigration population to support agriculture, which is huge in Florida," said Varona, CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County. "Some of them are legal, but we know a majority are illegal. If we did run those people off, a lot of the farms would go unattended. Everybody realizes here that that would be a disaster for the economy of Florida."

This issue is especially important to the state's 1.55 million registered Hispanic voters, 13 percent of Florida's electorate.

As recently as 2006, Republicans had the advantage among Florida Hispanics because of large numbers of Cuban-Americans who lean toward the GOP. But since then, Hispanic Democrats have surged to outnumber Hispanic Republicans 592,434 to 463,298, largely because of Puerto Ricans moving to Central Florida and voter registration drives led by groups that favor immigration reform.

Hoping to regain the advantage in Florida and elsewhere, Republicans used their national convention in Tampa two weeks ago to reach out to Hispanic voters. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told his personal story as the son of Cuban immigrants during a stirring introductory speech before Romney accepted the nomination.

Rubio has tried to soften the Republican rhetoric to fend off the perception in much of the Hispanic community that the party is anti-immigrant.

"The Republicans did fine at the convention, but they still find themselves having to gain ground while Democrats move ahead," said Frank Torres, a Puerto Rican Republican and public relations consultant in Orlando. "Republicans still have that tough immigration message [from the primary campaign] that Hispanic voters haven't forgotten, especially Mitt Romney's self-deportation comment that didn't play too well with Hispanic audiences."

Puerto Ricans, who are citizens, and Cubans, who have a special legal status once they arrive in this country, are not directly affected by immigration policy. But many of these voters choose who they support based on what the candidates and parties say and do about immigration.

"Republicans still have a chance to gain ground," Torres said, "but if the election were tomorrow, Obama would walk away with the Hispanic vote."

Hispanics were largely responsible for Obama's victory in Florida four years ago when he collected 57 percent of their vote — the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than three decades to get a Hispanic majority in the state.

Obama may fare even better this time. A survey of Florida Hispanic voters in July by Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan polling group, found that Obama led Romney 64 percent to 30 percent.

Romney won Republican primaries in Florida and other states while taking a tough stance on immigration, a position supported by many conservatives and tea party groups. He was advised by Kris Kobach, the co-author of restrictive laws in Arizona, Alabama and other states designed to enlist local police to help identify illegal immigrants.

Many voters, including some legal immigrants who became citizens, support this stance because they say illegal arrivals compete for jobs while crowding schools and health clinics.

"There are too many Americans out of work, and if they are on welfare they need to be doing some of those jobs that illegal immigrants are doing," said Derek Repath, a Boynton Beach resident who became a US citizen after emigrating from England. "I want to see Americans encouraged to work. If they do that, illegal immigrants are going to go home."

To court Hispanic support, Romney has stressed economic issues rather than immigration.

He has been guided by Rubio, who tried to take the sting out of the immigration debate by forging a compromise that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to remain in the US legally without becoming citizens. As Rubio was preparing the legislation, Obama issued a policy directive to prevent deportation of about 800,000 of people in that category and make them eligible for work permits.

"[Romney] wants to work with Marco Rubio to achieve immigration reform that is more reasonable than the my-way-or-the-highway approach of the current administration," said Al Cardenas, a Cuban-American from Miami and former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

"Most people, including Republicans, agree that immigration reform is necessary. And most of them believe there's got to be a reasonable approach to it, which would include finding a solution for most [of the undocumented] who are here."

Undecided voters like Varona are listening for solutions.

"Obama has at least articulated a more compassionate perspective on this issue," he said. "But I'm waiting. I need to hear more from the candidates as to what's their plan on immigration, and also health care and the economy."

wgibson@tribune.com or 202-824-8256

Presidential election: Obama, Romney immigration stances give voters clear options - South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com