Has the GOP Lost Latinos on Immigration?

Latino voters point to Jeff Sessions, Mike Lee as hurting GOP gamble on immigration reform.

(Jim Mone/AP)

"Latinos are not monolithic voters," says Lizette Escobedo of Mi Familia Vota. "Their votes should not be taken for granted by any political party."

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Evelyn Rivera, 24, won't be able to cast a ballot in 2016, but she's watching carefully as the debate on immigration reform unfolds on Capitol Hill.

Rivera, who is an immigration reform advocate at United We Dream, is one of the 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally. She was just 3 years old when her parents brought her to the U.S. from Colombia on a tourist visa. Her mother has since been deported, and today she is considered a DREAMer, someone who has been accepted for a deferred action program that allows immigrants who entered the country illegally as kids a chance to stay in the U.S.

Someday, Rivera says, she will be able to cast her first ballot and her decision of whether to check the box for the Republicans or Democrats will be largely affected by which party advocates for her rights in the immigration debate today.

"If immigration reform doesn't happen, we will remember that at the ballot," Rivera says. "Even if I can't vote, I have family. I have friends who will cast their ballots on my behalf."

This week a Latino Decisions poll showed 80 percent of Latino voters are closely monitoring how the debate unfolds and keeping a close eye on the GOP's effect on the debate. Forty-five percent of those polled say they would be more likely to vote for Republicans if the party showed its commitment to passing a comprehensive reform package that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally.

[READ: Split Decision on ‘Path to Citizenship’ in Immigration Poll]

"Latinos are not monolithic voters," says Lizette Escobedo, a spokeswoman for Mi Familia Vota, a group that advocates to reunite families who are torn apart by the country's immigration system. "Their votes should not be taken for granted by any political party. They vote when they have a candidate that speaks to them. It doesn't have to be one party or the other."

But the GOP's getting off to a rough start.

Friday, the debate on the "gang of eight's" comprehensive bill opened with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the most ardent critic of the immigration overhaul, pacing the Senate floor like a prosecutor delivering opening remarks.

Sessions blasted the "amnesty bill" as a repeat of the 1986 legislation.

"Under this bill, amnesty will occur at once just like it did in [1986]," Sessions says. "And like then, we get a mere promise of enforcement in the future. A mere promise."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also spoke out in the opening minutes and argued no amendment could be added to the bill to make it a conservative enough option to earn his vote.

"We can do better than another 1,000-page mistake," Lee said. "It's big government dysfunction."

This week, it seems even Republicans who once were strong advocates of reform are distancing themselves from the process.

[OPINION: House GOP Dream Act Deferral Vote Is Political Insanity]

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who had been a key conservative leader in the House's bipartisan negotiations to carve out a plan for comprehensive reform, walked away after six months because he could not agree with the rest of the group on how to handle health care for immigrants.

And, many in the House GOP voted to pass an amendment Thursday, to nearly defund President Barack Obama's executive order that gave his administration prosecutorial discretion not to deport DREAMers.

"There was just so much done in the Senate's bipartisan bill that helped perceptions in the community and yesterday a few voices took Republicans a step back," says Escobedo.

If immigration reform fails, some GOP lawmakers say the party can kiss future elections goodbye. Census numbers show there are 50.5 million Latino voters in the country and every month 50,000 eligible Latino voters turn 18.

"If we are not able to pass immigration reform in 2013 and it is the Republican Party's fault, we are dead in 2016," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday. "If we look for reasons to back out, or the bill fails and it is seen that we are not practical, we are not trying to solve the problem, we will pay a heavy price."