GOP Touts Latino Recruits, but Immigration Tension Remains

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During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus boasted that the GOP is producing some of the country’s most promising Latino elected officials. “We’ve got Marco Rubio there in Florida, who’s an absolute star,” Priebus said, referring to Florida’s junior U.S. Senator, a youthful, socially conservative Cuban-American. Priebus also pointed to two newly elected Republican governors: Susana Martinez, of New Mexico, and Brian Sandoval, of Nevada. “They are the rising stars, and they’re with us and they’re going to help us communicate across America,” he said.

Priebus’ comments, which came during a call centered on Florida’s role in the 2012 presidential race, are noteworthy as both parties grapple with how to attract Latinos, who account for 9% of the national electorate. Latinos are expected to play a crucial role in the next election, especially in battleground states such as New Mexico, where they make up 35% of the electorate, and Florida, where they represent about 18% of voters. Barack Obama captured nearly two-thirds of Latino votes in the 2008 presidential election. But unlike blacks, who have proved loyal to President Obama and Democrats despite enduring disproportionate economic hardship in recent years, Hispanics are not tethered to one political party.

Younger Latinos register as Democrats in large numbers. But Latinos’ recent enthusiasm for Democrats is weakening, mainly because of the inability of Congress and the Obama Administration to modernize the nation’s federal immigration laws. That failure is enabling restrictive, Republican-led immigration policies in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and other states. The xenophobic rhetoric driving state-level policies has made immigration the most important issue for Latinos, despite the fact that nearly three-quarters are American citizens. Nevertheless, during Wednesday’s call, Priebus insisted that his party’s handling of the immigration question is “not going to hurt us one bit. Obviously, we’re going to focus on the economy, which transcends all backgrounds.”

While a significant share of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials’ nearly 6,000 members are Democrats, Priebus’ observation about Republicans’ recent success electing Hispanics officials has merit. Of the 251 Latinos elected to the nation’s state legislatures, 41 are Republican. The party helped elect Jaime Herrera Beutler, Washington State’s first Latino Congressional representative, and John Sanchez is now New Mexico’s lieutenant governor. But it’s also worth noting what the NALEO’s chief, Arturo Vargas, told TIME earlier this week: “Latinos don’t suffer from amnesia. They’re a sophisticated electorate, and will make decisions based on the candidate, and circumstances.” In other words, Latino voters, who generally share a strain of social conservatism, will not tolerate culturally exclusive rhetoric, or policies.

Steven Gray is a Washington Correspondent at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @stevengray or on Facebook at Facebook/gray.steven. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.