The blowback was swift. A day after Mitt Romney's campaign released a new television ad in Spanish promising “solutions for immigration,” advocates for the Dream Act, which would legalize undocumented youth, demanded that the campaign take it down.
The back and forth is the latest in an increasingly tense fight over the Republican presidential nominee's stance on immigration since the issue was discussed in Tuesday’s town-hall debate. Romney is clearly trying to pull away at least some of President Obama’s relatively solid support among Latinos. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Hispanics support Obama in battleground states.
Romney’s efforts to court Latinos is rousing the immigration-reform movement to protest. America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry took part in a conference call hastily cobbled together by Dream Act advocates to respond to the ad, which promises “a program for work visas” and “a permanent solution for undocumented youth.” There is no English-language counterpart to the TV ad.
“I think this ad is a fraud. I think it’s something that’s way beyond the pale of where they stand,” said Sharry, a longtime advocate of broad immigration reform, including the Dream Act.
Dream Act advocates are alternately proud that their proposed legislation, once on the back burner in Congress, has become a central issue in both presidential campaigns. They are also worried that Romney will sweep in at the last minute in the presidential campaign and mislead Latinos about his stance on undocumented immigrants. They point out that Romney still believes in a policy of "self-deportation," where undocumented people leave because life becomes too difficult in the United States.
Mitzi Castro, an undocumented young woman from Arizona, also takes offense that Romney has used the term “illegal” to describe her, saying it’s tantamount to a racial slur. “How can one stomach that and feel completely safe and trust someone who calls us that?” Castro asked.
Through a staunch, determined grassroots lobbying effort, the so-called “dreamers” have become the face of the immigration-reform movement. They agitated for a Senate vote in 2010 on the bill, which failed to get 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. Since then, they have dogged the two major presidential campaigns for answers about how to handle undocumented young people.
“There is no campaign that can get us closer to the Latino electorate than the dreamers. We are their brothers and sisters, their boyfriends and girlfriends,” said the Dream Act Coalition's Cesar Vargas.
Advocates for legalization of undocumented immigrants tend to be Democrats, but not all people who support the idea are liberals. The final line of the Romney ad illustrates an appeal Republicans hope will work: “We need conservatives that will unite us to achieve solutions.”
Hispanics are highly frustrated that even the smallest immigration legislation is hopelessly stalled in Congress. The Obama administration has given the same response for two years: It’s the Republicans’ fault.
But Latinos are not shy about blaming everyone in charge, including Obama. A viewer comment on the YouTube version of the Romney ad illustrates this: “Proud Latino here who's voting for Romney. El presidente Obama na ha hecho nada por la comunidad hispana.” (That last sentence translates, “President Obama has done nothing for the Hispanic community.”)
Romney’s ad criticizes Obama for failing to push an immigration overhaul through Congress when he had the chance. Sharry — a Democrat who who has leveled the same critique — said he is floored by Romney’s censures of Obama on immigration, especially because the GOP nominee has repeatedly said he doesn’t support amnesty. “The idea that there’s a Spanish-language ad criticizing Obama for not passing a policy that Romney doesn’t support? That’s chutzpah,” Sharry said.
Chutzpah or not, Romney’s ad, and the reaction to it, shows that immigration is rising to the top of the electoral dialogue. And when that happens, congressional debates are likely to follow.