Less than one week after President Obama announced relaxed deportation enforcement on some young illegal immigrants, Republican rival Mitt Romney is set to address a group of Latino political leaders in a public address with huge political implications.
In Romney's speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida on Thursday, members of the Latino community are looking for clues that he has eased his harsh rhetoric on immigration reformsince staking out the far right ground during the Republican primary.
Romney has tried to reach out to Hispanic voters on economic grounds, pointing out the community's elevated unemployment rate over that of the national average.
But he's generally danced away from questions regarding Obama's move, which would temporarily defer deportments of illegal immigrants with high school degrees or military service and clean criminal records. It's a policy that closely mirrored what Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative star and Romney supporter, was planning on submitting as legislation to address immigration reform.
"He went so far to the right, now he's having a hard time finding his way back," says Maria Theresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, a non-partisan group aimed at signing up young Latinos to vote. "The silver lining was Marco Rubio and his plans for his own version of the DREAM act and this kind of deflated his efforts. So now he has to figure out a different narrative."
Kumar says Romney is right to focus his message on the economy and jobs, because it's the top issue for Latinos as it is for all voters. But the community is also very much swayed by other factors, including Romney's embrace of Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State known as the architect of the Arizona immigration law that permits law enforcement to ask people for proof of citizenship. The law is currently being scrutinized by the Supreme Court, which is expected to hand down a ruling soon. Critics of the law say it encourages racial profiling and infringes on the right to privacy.
"The way in which [Romney] spoke about immigration has been very unsympathetic about the ploy of the families and embracing a policy which encouraged self-deportation – that's really telling Hispanic families that you're going to make their lives so miserable in their community that their going to be targets and they are going to pack their bags and leave," Kumar says. "It's a really difficult position to even get to jobs policy issues based on his past history. I think that's where he's really scrambling and needs to come up with a strategy, no t just Spanish-language ads."
Alexandra Franceschi, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee's Latino outreach effort, says focusing on connecting with voters in economic terms has met with success.
"I don't think there's anything more personal than not being able to meet your rent or pay your bills and if you don't have a job you can't pay your bills," she says. "Latinos can see that they really want a long-term solution to the broken immigration system in our country and I think that when you play politics with the issue of immigration it really complicates that."
The recent focus on immigration policy also serves to highlight the truth of the statement of a top RNC official who claimed to have misspoken when she told reporters, "As a candidate, to my understanding, [Romney's] still deciding what his position on immigration is, so I can't talk about what his proposal is going to be, because I don't know."
"He's talked about different issues and what we saw in the Republican primary is that there is a very diverse opinion on how to deal with immigration. I can't talk about something that I don't know what the position is," said Bettina Inclan, the director of Hispanic outreach for the RNC, in an exchange with reporters discussing what would motivate Latino voters to support Republicans given Romney's conservative stance.