Illegal immigration is a national issue, but the political consequences of staking out firm positions on either side of the debate are decidedly local. President Obama announced last Friday that his administration will no longer seek to deport young undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria, a decision that complicates matters for the GOP, from Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket, down to Republican Senate contenders in Sun Belt battlegrounds.
Romney's decision not to vet (at least not yet) Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the most prominent Hispanic Republican in the country, is the surest sign yet that Republicans don't want to talk about immigration. Rubio has proposed his own version of the DREAM Act, and would be regularly peppered with immigration questions on the presidential campaign trail.
But that's not what Republicans want to talk about. Romney clearly didn't want to discuss it on Sunday, when he declined to say that he would overturn Obama's new policy if elected. Why? Public opinion is not on the GOP's side, and even within Republican circles, there is a divide. A new Bloomberg pollreleased on Tuesday showed 64 percent of likely voters said they agreed with Obama's new policy on young illegal immigrants while just 30 percent said they disagreed. Republicans were split on the question.
And in states with booming Hispanic populations, the Republican conundrum is magnified, from the presidential level down to the Senate races. In Nevada, where a hotly contested Senate race is raging between Democratic Rep.Shelley Berkley, and Republican Sen. Dean Heller, Latino voters have represented about 15 percent of the electorate during the past two elections, giving Democrats roughly seven out of ten votes on each occasion. Obama's new policy as is seen as an opportunity for his party to spur enthusiasm in the state among Latino voters who have been reliably Democratic. Republicans are treading lightly so as not to further alienate a base that has kept its distance from their party's candidates in recent elections.
"I applaud today's actions by President Obama and his administration to provide relief to Nevadans eligible under the DREAM Act," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democratic Senate nominee in Nevada, shortly after Obama announced his policy shift. Heller, meanwhile, has already run into trouble with Hispanic voters, and while he rejected the president's proposal, he urged a bipartisan solution.
"Unilateral action by the Administration will not provide a long-term solution to this very serious issue," said Heller. "Democrats and Republicans need to come together to solve this problem. Temporary actions will only fuel uncertainty for these children and their families."
In New Mexico, Republican Heather Wilson will have to win moderates to have a fighting chance due to the state's Democratic tilt. So Wilson was critical of the temporary nature president's decision, but didn't wholly reject the idea of a long-term solution presented by Rubio. "Sen. Rubio is working on a bi-partisan, long-term solution, and I hope today's action doesn't stall efforts like his to solve this very important issue." Wilson's Democratic opponent, Rep. Martin Heinrich, a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act that stalled in Congress, said on Friday that "It's time to make the DREAM a reality."
The booming Hispanic population in Sun Belt states is seen as an opportunity for Democrats to make gains, even in starkly red states like Arizona and Texas. But they worry about voter participation lagging behind growth. The New York Times reported that while over 21 million Latinos will be eligible to vote this November, only around 10 million of them are registered, and even fewer show up to vote.