When it comes to Hispanic outreach, Republicans on Wednesday took two tiny steps forward and one giant step back. The RNC announced they were ramping up their outreach efforts to Hispanic voters and Mitt Romney released an advertisement in Florida in Spanish. But it’s hard to see either of those overshadowing Romney’s embrace of the architect of notorious Arizona and Alabama anti-immigration laws.
Wednesday morning, the Romney campaign announced the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. “I’m so proud to earn Kris’s support,” Romney said in the press release. “Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country,” which Romney said he was “very pleased to get.”
But that’s not entirely what Kobach is known for. Rather than secure the border, Kobach is the architect of a different approach. As is evident in the Arizona and Alabama laws he helped design, the goal is to drive Hispanics, and particularly immigrants, out of the country. As Kobach put it, according to The Daily Beast, “People often see federal immigration policy as a dichotomy between amnesty and deportation. But the most rational approach is a third one: you ratchet up the enforcement so that people make their own decisions to start following the law.” Or, as the legislation itself says, “attrition through enforcement.” The Alabama law — portions of which have been blocked in court for now — has been blamed for prompting children to drop out of schools and devastating industries that depended on Hispanic labor. He is involved in legislation and lawsuits across the country, including suing states for granting in-state tuition to undocumented students, and is planning anti-immigration effort in Kansas this year.
Kobach, with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, approaches the immigration question from a legal perspective and puts on a measured air, but his rhetoric is extreme. Kobach currently serves as counsel to the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), recently listed as a nativist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the liberal immigration reform advocacy group America’s Voice, speaking about Romney’s embrace of Kobach. Sharry points to Kobach’s own words, quoted in Romney’s press release:
We need a president who will finally put a stop to a problem that has plagued our country for a generation: millions of illegal aliens coming into the country and taking jobs from United States citizens and legal aliens…Illegal immigration is a nightmare… Mitt Romney is the candidate who will finally secure the borders and put a stop to the magnets, like in-state tuition, that encourage illegal aliens to remain in our country unlawfully.
The terms ‘plague’ and ‘nightmare,’ says Sharry, are the language of the far right. That’s not going to go over well with Hispanic voters where Romney’s approval is currently in the low 20s.
“There’s an old saying in Spanish, ‘tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are,’” says Sharry. “Is he as well known as Joe Arpaio? No, but is his work well known? You bet.” Latinos perceive these laws as an “existential threat.”
But Republicans, including Romney, argue they can win over Latino voters with their economic message. On a press call Wednesday, RNC chair Reince Priebus announced Republicans were expanding their outreach efforts to Latino voters with social media outreach and on-the-ground organizing around an economic message. They’ve hired a new Director of Hispanic Outreach.
When Sharry heard this he laughed. “They should save their money. They should close up shop and they should look for a new job.” Certainly, the state of the economy is hurting President Obama, as is his failure to implement immigration reform and the high number of deportations his administration has overseen. The economic message could work for Republicans says Sharry, except Romney’s “position on immigration disqualifies him.”
The Democratic National Committee sees the Kobach endorsement as a major mistake. “On the issue of immigration, he’d be the most extreme presidential candidate of our time,” said DNC spokesman Ricardo Ramirez. ”It’s no wonder he fumbled his recent Hispanic outreach by flaunting an endorsement from the architect of the Alabama and Arizona anti-immigrant state laws, just days after he pledged to veto the DREAM Act and accused DREAM Act students of looking for a handout.”
Romney may have released a Spanish-language ad in Florida Wednesday, but he also said this: “With Kris [Kobach] on the team, I look forward to working with him to take forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration and to support states like South Carolina and Arizona that are stepping forward to address this problem.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.