As the GOP primary looks toward next week’s contest in Alabama, home of the harshest anti-immigrant law in the country, the immigration issue is certain to rear its head again. And Mitt Romney and the other candidates have a choice: double-down on anti-immigrant rhetoric, or begin to show a softer, more general election-friendly side.
Alabama’s anti-immigration law, HB 56, is designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state. Similar to Arizona’s infamous law, it requires law enforcement to determine the legal status of virtually anyone it deems suspicious during a lawful stop, detention or arrest. The law has additional provisions that, for example, force employers to determine the immigration status of job applicants and prohibit landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. A federal appeals court blocked a small portion of the Alabama law, including one section that required public schools to determine the immigration status of students. Critics say it has cost the state billions in GDP.
The Alabama primary comes just as the effects of the GOP primary’s immigration rhetoric are becoming clear. On Monday, a poll from Fox News Latino indicated immigration was a key contributor to the Latino community backing off its support for the GOP. The poll showed that Latino voters favor President Obama over the GOP field 6 to 1 — that’s better than Obama did with Latinos in 2008, and means Republicans are doing worse than John McCain did. In head-to-head match-ups with Obama, no Republican candidate got more than 14 percent of the Latino vote.
The issue is particularly prickly for Romney, who’s tried to win conservative bona fides by positioning himself as the furthest-right candidate on immigration. If Romney wins the nomination, Democrats will be ready to confront him with his harsh rhetoric. Romney’s positioning on the far right is something he is “going to regret,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), speaking to reporters on a conference call Thursday. “He is locked into these extreme positions and Republicans have seriously undercut their chances of making any inroads into the Latino vote.”
Among the Romney remarks Democrats are eager to replay: He characterized the popular Dream Act as a “handout” and touts “self-deportation” as the “answer” to the immigration problem. Depending on whether Romney praises Alabama’s even tougher law, Democrats could gather more fodder to use against him.
“I think there is this attitude on the part of some over there in the Romney camp that they can just wipe the slate clean, that they can get the nomination and that all that was said in the past just goes away,” senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “That’s not the way this works. I think they’ve done real and lasting damage, and frankly they deserve it.”
The Alabama law, like Arizona’s, has caught the attention of as Latinos beyond its own state borders.
“In national politics the importance of Alabama in — it’s emblematic of the political suicide that the GOP is committing,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “Maybe there aren’t a lot of Republican Latino voters in Alabama but that state is going to have an outsize influence on the outcome of the presidential election” because of the immigration law. “There is a level of consciousness in the Latino community about” the law, Tramonte said.
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.