Courting Latino Vote, Romney Treads Lightly on Immigration Print
Tuesday, 24 January 2012 16:08

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WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — When Mitt Romney pulled in for a campaign rally here recently, he pointedly left his tough stance against illegal immigration far behind in South Carolina, where he had trumpeted the issue repeatedly.

It was a tactical decision designed to avoid irritating Florida’s coveted 450,000 Hispanic Republican voters, a group that is overwhelmingly Cuban-American, as he headed into the Jan. 31 presidential primary here, political analysts say.

But Mr. Romney, who takes a hard line on illegal immigration, was also banking on the likelihood that the Hispanic voters — a pivotal bloc in a pivotal state — care more about jobs and the distressed economy than green cards and the Dream Act, a proposal to give legal status to some illegal immigrants who came into the United States as children.

In this, Mr. Romney is right. Unlike many Mexicans and other Hispanics in California and the Southwest, Cuban-Americans do not view immigration as a defining issue in the election. That is because for decades Cubans arriving in the United States have been automatically granted United States residency after their first year here, a holdover from the cold war. Puerto Ricans, who make up the second-largest group of Hispanics in Florida, are already citizens and are also less concerned about immigration.

“The economy is what’s most important to Hispanics here, unemployment,” Sergio Lostal, 59, an unemployed Cuban-American and Romney supporter who arrived in the United States in 1984, said at the rally. “That’s the fundamental issue.”

Florida’s unemployment rate is 9.9 percent, compared with 8.5 percent nationally; the jobless rate for Hispanics nationally and in Florida is even higher.

In polls taken before the South Carolina primary, Mr. Romney held a lead in Florida as large as 22 percent over Newt Gingrich and another contender, Rick Santorum. But Mr. Gingrich’s strong victory over Mr. Romney in the South Carolina primary is shaking up some Hispanic Romney supporters, who are taking another look at Mr. Gingrich.

And while Hispanic voters here have not seized on immigration as an issue, Mr. Gingrich’s more temperate view on illegal immigration has certainly not hurt him. Mr. Gingrich said in a debate on Monday that he would support half of the Dream Act — the part that would grant citizenship to young illegal immigrants who serve in the military but not those who complete college. Mr. Romney said he agreed with that position. But Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum had said they would veto the Dream Act as written, a position that could dampen enthusiasm among Latinos in a general election.

Mr. Gingrich also has proposed allowing many illegal immigrants who have been in the United States a long time the opportunity to stay here as residents. Mr. Romney, like Mr. Santorum, has taken an aggressive stance against legalizing any illegal immigrants who do no deport themselves and apply for green cards from their home country.

Like the candidates, Florida has long been conflicted over illegal immigration in general; in its last session, the State Senate declined to pass a bill that would have required businesses to verify the immigration status of workers.

But Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney have much in common when it comes to Cuba. Both are making a point of talking tough on Cuba and the Castro brothers, saying they would roll back family travel to the island, among other things.

Rosa Pestana, 67, a Cuban-American voter who attended the Romney rally nearly two weeks ago, was planning to vote for Mr. Romney at the time. After Mr. Gingrich, a candidate she said she believes is intelligent and experienced, won the South Carolina primary, she was torn. Now she is holding back until after Thursday’s debate to decide who to vote for, adding that she will likely choose whoever is the front-runner.

But, Ms. Pestana, who owns an assisted living center, said she viewed Mr. Gingrich’s position on immigration — an issue she considers secondary — as more realistic. Her son recently tried to hire American citizens for his roofing company, she said, and found no takers.

“Who will fix our roofs and pick our tomatoes?” asked Ms. Pestana.

Read More: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/25/us/politics/courting-latinos-romney-treads-lightly-on-immigration.html?_r=1



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