The immigrant card

Tue, Jan 31, 2012, 00:00

FLORIDA HAS an estimated 450,000 Hispanic Republican voters, most of them conservative Cuban-American. But they are not as directly affected as most Hispanics by the immigration controversy dividing Republicans because, like Puerto Ricans, they enjoy far easier access to the US than those crossing from Mexico. The state has 1.5 million Hispanic voters (13.4 per cent of voters), a third, Cuban-Americans who, courtesy of the cold war, have traditionally been granted citizenship after a year in the US.

That reality, and equally tough talk on Cuba from all candidates, will probably save the bacon of frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in today’s primary. But he has nevertheless felt the need to mute his hardline message by insisting, contrary to form, that he is not “anti-immigrant”. Indeed that his father was an emigrant (his grandfather had fled the US for Mexico when the US proscribed Mormon polygamy).

This is dangerous ground for Republicans, a key demographic whose vote was crucial to Obama’s election and will be again next year. Hispanics are the fastest growing community in the US, responsible for more than half the US population growth in the last decade. They have been disturbed, like many in the Irish community, not only by Republican opposition at national level to legislation that would create a “path to citizenship” for illegals, but also by a series of tough, some would say vindictive, laws enacted by states like Alabama and Arizona against migrant workers.

In TV debates main challenger Newt Gingrich has backed parts of the so-called Dream Act which would give citizenship to young illegals who serve time in the military, while denying it to those who complete college. Romney, however, insists that any illegal could only be given citizenship after returning home and applying from there. Most of the debates have seen a competition between candidates over how high they would make the Mexican border fence and whether to electrify it.

Yet, while whipping up an anti-immigrant frenzy may serve well to copper-fasten the white conservative base for the primaries, many Republican strategists warn it will prove short-sighted ahead of a general election. Florida’s rising Hispanic star, Republican senator Marco Rubio, seen by some as vice-presidential material, has warned the party to tone down its rhetoric. But, like its apparent determination to plump for an ideological rather than electable candidate, it seems the anti-immigrant instincts are deep in the party’s genetic code.