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Heading into the 2012 Elections, Republican Presidential Candidates Walk the Immigration Policy Tightrope

Heading into the 2012 Elections, Republican Presidential Candidates Walk the Immigration Policy Tightrope

The debate season is well underway for the Republican presidential primary races in the United States, and immigration has once again emerged as a highly contentious issue. While there seems to be little consensus among the candidates as to how to fix the nation's broken immigration system — or even to engage in a constructive dialogue on the topic — one underlying lesson has emerged: The issue of immigration must be handled cautiously.

In the early fall, Texas Governor Rick Perry, briefly a front-runner in the race, saw his poll numbers plummet after he declared in a debate that candidates who did not support in-state college tuition benefits for unauthorized immigrant children "did not have a heart." That comment won Perry an avalanche of criticism from his opponents, particularly Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Both Bachmann and Romney sent out campaign materials deriding the Perry comment, and the Romney campaign asserted that Perry was part of the "illegal immigration problem." Perry responded by accusing Romney of being the problem, referring to his rival’s hiring of a landscaping company that employed unauthorized workers.

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More recently, former congressman and fellow candidate Newt Gingrich took heat after he called for a "humane policy" on immigration that would allow some unauthorized immigrants who had been present in the country for an extended period of time to legalize their status. Gingrich's opponents criticized his position as being tantamount to offering amnesty for individuals who entered the country illegally and creating a magnet for further illegal immigration.

In hopes of bolstering their immigration enforcement credentials, several of the Republican candidates — including Bachmann, Perry, Romney, and businessman Herman Cain — have sought out endorsements from Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known nationally for his tough and controversial policies targeting unauthorized immigrants in the Phoenix area. Just this week, Arpaio officially endorsed Perry and joined him on the campaign trail. Candidates have also emphasized their support for increased fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, along with an increase in Border Patrol agents.

But being seen as too tough on the issue is also a political risk for the candidates. In October, Cain raised eyebrows and garnered significant criticism after he suggested that border fencing should be electrified. Some Republican strategists fear the harsh rhetoric by the candidates could damage their party’s prospects with an ever more important voting bloc: Latino voters.

Latino GOP activists have called on the candidates to dial down the harsh rhetoric, warning that it could drive away Hispanic voters, who traditionally have been more aligned with the Democratic Party.

In fact, following Cain's electrified fence comment and his announcement of support for an armed military presence along the border, the head of Somos Republicans, the largest organization of Latino conservatives in Texas, quit the Republican Party proclaiming there was “no room for Latinos” within it.

Another sign of caution for candidates: Tough immigration enforcement measures passed in a number of states are receiving significant pushback from business interests.

In Alabama, where state legislators enacted what is seen as the country's toughest immigration enforcement law last summer, farmers, businesses leaders, and even some politicians who originally supported the law have called for its retooling, pointing to labor shortages in agriculture, in particular, which is dependent on migrant workers. And in Arizona, state Senate President Russell Pearce, who was the chief architect of Arizona's tough immigration enforcement law, lost his seat in a recall election in November.

Beyond the current focus on the Republican primaries, the longer-term political question is how the Latino vote will factor in the 2012 presidential elections and the degree to which the candidates' stances on immigration will sway them. In 2008, Latinos played a key role in electing President Obama, affecting the outcome in four key states (Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada) that could also play a deciding role in this election. All told, Latinos voted for Obama over Senator John McCain in 2008 by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

But recent polling indicates that Latinos are not completely satisfied with Obama's track record on immigration, especially given the president's focus on enforcement and the administration's record-breaking deportation numbers. An October 2011 poll from Latino Decisions, for example, indicated that less than half of the Latino voters surveyed consider themselves "certain" that they will vote for Obama in 2012. A full 12 percent responded that they would likely vote for Obama, but that they could change their minds.

While most Latino voters generally support comprehensive immigration reform, it is not the only — or even the chief — concern on their minds. As with most voters, their primary concerns revolve around the economy and job creation.

With respect to immigration, the challenge for the eventual Republican nominee will be to energize a conservative base that is focused on reducing illegal immigration without driving away potential Latino support.