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Rubio’s Immigration Stance Could Hurt His Appeal

Conventional wisdom dictates that Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) would be a significant asset as a vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, but immigration activists believe his opposition to the DREAM Act would likely hurt the high-profile Latino lawmaker’s appeal among Hispanic voters.

“He has an amazing story, and a lot of people can relate to him, but at the end of the day, he does not stand with our community, he’s against it and people will definitely not support him,” said Juan Ortega, president of DREAM Big Vegas, a Las Vegas-based organization focused on raising awareness of the DREAM Act.

The measure, which would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who agree to go to college or join the military, was approved in the House last year, but it narrowly failed in the Senate a few days later. Since then, its prospects for passage have plummeted as GOP opposition to the measure was strengthened by the 2010 elections.

Rubio would appear to be an attractive vice presidential candidate for any of the frontrunners in the GOP presidential primaries. He is conservative, polished, has a national profile and could help a GOP ticket that would be taking on the nation’s first non-white president.

But Frank Sharry, executive director of left-leaning immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, believes that while Rubio may do well in Florida, his opposition to the DREAM Act would hurt him in critical Western swing states with sizable Latino electorates, such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

“If there are Spanish-language ads in the West saying Rubio opposes the DREAM Act, comprehensive immigration reform and is for mandatory E-Verify, it’s going to be disqualifying for all but about 20 percent of Hispanic voters,” Sharry said.

E-Verify is the Internet-based federal program that determines the immigration status of new hires. Rubio has co-sponsored a bill that would reauthorize the E-Verify employment check system and make it mandatory for all employers.

Sharry and others also noted that Rubio, while in the Florida state Legislature, supported legislation providing in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants. They charge that he switched his position to curry favor with the GOP base in order to help win his Senate seat.

But Rubio said his position has evolved since the in-state tuition legislation was put forward about 10 years ago and that he was elected on his current position.

“It’s too broad,” Rubio said of the DREAM Act. “It’s the wrong way to do the right thing.”

“What’s happened over the last 10 years [since he sponsored the bills] is that a growing number of Americans and Floridians believe that our immigration laws are being taken advantage of … and it’s become harder and harder to find the political space to create an accommodation for kids that are in this predicament,” Rubio said.

He said that to create the political space, he supports enforcing existing laws at the border and in the workplace and also supports ways of improving legal immigration, such as implementing “a guest worker program that functions.”

Based on recent polling, immigration activists believe the DREAM Act will be a good barometer with regard to how Hispanics will likely vote in the 2012 elections.

A Nov. 8 poll commissioned by Spanish-language media firm Univision found that about 58 percent of all voters support the DREAM Act, and 84 percent of Latino voters support the measure.

“The idea that people who were brought across the border as children and therefore are not legally responsible for the actions that led to them finding themselves here, the idea that they should not be punished but in fact should be provided a pathway [to citizenship] is wildly popular among the electorate,” said Gary Segura, a principal in Latino Decisions, which conducted the poll.

While other issues will also play into Latino thinking as they individually decide whom they will support for president, support for the DREAM Act appears to be growing, especially as supporters, such as DREAM Big Vegas, continue to raise awareness of the bill.

Last year, a trio of undocumented Florida college students walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., to advocate for a pathway to citizenship. Last month, 18-year-old Joaquin Luna of Mission, Texas, committed suicide, leaving behind a note in which he blamed his undocumented status, which was a barrier to attaining his goal of becoming an engineer.

Some conservative strategists cast doubt on whether immigration would be a big issue in the 2012 presidential election.

Luke Frans, executive director of Resurgent Republic, a conservative policy organization, said that the issue of the economy and unemployment would trump immigration with Latino voters, but that immigration will still be a factor. 

“The Hispanic electorate at large is going to be concerned about the economy and job creation, especially with what we have seen with Hispanic independents,” Frans said.

Immigration “can’t be ignored by conservatives, but when somebody doesn’t have a job, that is overwhelmingly going  [to be] their top concerns [in the voting booth] and for some time,” Frans said.

Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications at the Heritage Foundation, said Democrats see the DREAM Act, and immigration generally, as part of a political gambit to win the Hispanic vote to offset the loss of blue-collar whites.

“What we will see over the next 12 months, sadly … is a lot of cynical plays with Hispanic voters,” Gonzalez said.

Meanwhile, Rubio stressed that he spends no time thinking about how his positions would affect his electability at the national level.

But he did note, “You are not going to win the Hispanic vote simply by putting someone on there whose last name ends in a vowel. You are going to need to earn that vote.”

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