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How Romney could win over Latinos

Op-Ed

Endorsing a Republican version of the Dream Act could help him bridge the gap with that crucial voting bloc.

April 18, 2012|By Tamar Jacoby
  • Supporters of the Dream Act rallied at Temple Street and Broadway in Los Angeles in 2010. Mitt Romney recently told attendees at a closed-door fundraiser that he supports Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's Republican alternative to the Dream Act.
Supporters of the Dream Act rallied at Temple Street and Broadway in Los… (Los Angeles Times )

As a Republican who cares deeply about the future of the party and wants to see us win in November, I was thrilled this week when Mitt Romney told attendees at a closed-door fundraiser that he supports Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's Republican alternative to the Dream Act. The next step: Romney should endorse the proposal publicly and challenge Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring it up for a vote in the Senate.

This would be good for Romney, good for Republicans, good for many hopeful young immigrants and good for America.

Like the original, bipartisan Dream Act, Rubio's alternative is designed to help young people who were brought to this country illegally as children and are now making lives here — this is the only "home" they know — but are unable, because of their immigration status, to attend college legally, serve in the military or work anywhere but in the underground economy.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Unlike the original, which Romney and some Republicans reject as amnesty, Rubio's version — let's call it Dream 2.0 — would not grant these young people automatic citizenship. Instead of green cards, which open the door to citizenship, most would get non-immigrant visas allowing them to remain in the U.S. legally. But neither would the new bill bar them from citizenship. No American with any sense of history wants to create a caste of second-class sub-citizens. Dream 2.0 grants green cards to young people who have served honorably in the military. And it leaves open the possibility that other beneficiaries could eventually become citizens by getting in a different green-card queue — one based on marriage, employment or family ties.

This is a thoughtful compromise, and I can see why it appeals to Romney — it's consistent with the best of Republican values. These young people have committed no crime — their parents brought them to the U.S. involuntarily. Dream 2.0 would encourage assimilation. It would reward individual achievement and service — attending college and enlisting in the military. It would make all the difference for the young people who benefit. And it would be a boon for America — surely it's better for the nation if these promising young people make the most of their potential.

So what's standing in the way? Politics, of course. But not the politics you'd expect. This time around, the problem is more Democrats than Republicans. Many Democrats don't want Republicans to get out ahead with new ideas about immigration. That would shatter the myth that Democrats and their allies have been perpetuating for years now: that they're the good guys who care about immigrants and we Republicans are the villains, blocking reform for racist reasons. It's no accident that Reid, Dream Act champion Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and the New York Times editorial page have denounced Rubio's Dream Act. It gives the lie to their myth.

These Democratic critics dismiss Dream 2.0; without a sure road to citizenship, they say, it's worthless. But is that how an immigrant parent would see it? I wonder. Here's a bill that would allow your child to go to college, get a good job and have a legal future in America. No, it's not perfect. It would be awhile — maybe even many years — before she could vote. But in this case the perfect may be the enemy of the good. The alternative to Dream 2.0 isn't Dream 1.0. The original bill couldn't get through Congress in 2010, and it couldn't pass today. The choice today is Dream 2.0 or nothing.

And that's where Romney could make a difference. That's why he ought to challenge Reid. Dream 2.0 deserves a full debate.

This isn't just the right thing to do. It would also help Romney solve his problem communicating with Latino voters. Truth is he has a lot to say that Latinos could find appealing — if they could hear him. But they can't hear him because some of what he says on immigration is so off-putting, many stop listening to the rest of his pitch.

For many Latinos, immigration is a threshold issue and Romney is stuck on the wrong side of the threshold. That's why he's doing so poorly among Latino voters, winning just 14% to President Obama's 70% in one poll.

Dream 2.0 could help Romney and other Republicans over this critical threshold. Then, when he talks about the economy and education and legal immigration and small-business issues, Latino voters could hear him — and many would be drawn to his views. As Ronald Reagan used to say, "Latinos are Republicans — they just don't know it yet."

Gov. Romney, don't let Reid and other Democrats squelch the debate about immigration. Don't let them paint Republicans into a corner, casting us as heartless villains blocking people's paths to better lives. Dream 2.0 puts Republicans out ahead pushing for a solution. Tell Reid that as president, you'd sign it in a heartbeat if it came across your desk.

Tamar Jacoby, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners working for better immigration law.

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