Supreme Court case tests Romney on immigration, Hispanic outreach effort

Mitt Romney’s outreach to Hispanic voters will be put to the test this week as the Supreme Court takes up a controversial immigration law that is popular with his party.

The high court will hear oral arguments Wednesday on the constitutionality of S.B. 1070, the Arizona law that gives police in the state the power to detain and question anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. 

The passage of the law created an uproar last year and renewed the national debate over how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States.

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Romney called Arizona’s policy a model for other states during a February debate in Mesa, Ariz., putting himself at odds with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the Cuban-American who is the odds-on favorite to be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee this year.

Romney’s campaign later clarified that the former Massachusetts governor was only referring to the part of the Arizona law that requires the use of E-Verify to determine eligibility for employment. An aide said Democrats are wrong to cite the line as evidence that Romney has embraced the Arizona law.

Support for the Arizona law has grown since it was signed. A Fox News poll released Friday showed more than 65 percent of U.S. voters approve of the law, compared to 31 percent who oppose it. The measure is especially popular with Republicans, who support it by 84 percent.

But the law remains decidedly unpopular among Hispanics — the fastest-growing voter bloc in the country, and a group that Republicans publicly acknowledge they need to make inroads with if they are going to win the White House in November.

That adds up to a balancing act for Romney, who will face questions about the law as he tries to drum up support among Hispanics without alienating his party’s base. 

“The strategic challenge the Romney campaign has to figure out is, how do they square his voiced public support for the Arizona law with the strategic imperative to reaching out to Hispanic voters and increase their share of the Hispanic vote over what McCain got last time?” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.

Democrats argue the Supreme Court case is a challenge not only to the Arizona law, but also to the Republican Party’s approach to illegal immigration. 

“This is a very important moment for the Republicans because they have staked a lot of their political future on making immigrants the target of local law enforcement,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in an email to The Hill.

Romney has also pledged, if elected, to veto the DREAM Act, legislation supported by Democrats and President Obama that would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Rubio, seeking to expand the GOP’s appeal to Hispanics, is developing a compromise version of the DREAM Act that would reward illegal immigrants who serve honorably in the U.S. military. 

“I’m taking a look at his proposal. It has a lot of features to be commended,” Romney said Monday during a joint appearance with Rubio in Philadelphia.

But while Romney might be able to punt for the time being on the DREAM Act, the debate over Arizona’s law will be unavoidable this week — and again in June, when the court is expected to deliver its ruling.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), a Romney supporter who signed the law, will be in the gallery for the oral arguments, and former Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce (R) — the architect of the law, who was recalled by Arizona voters in the aftermath of the law’s passage — is scheduled to testify Tuesday before a Senate subcommittee.

Groups on both sides of the issue have planned demonstrations outside the court, and members of Congress — many who are in the midst of their own reelection campaigns — are using the opportunity to raise their profile on immigration. 

Eighty-one Republican members of Congress, including Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas) and Rep. Steve King (Iowa), have filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Arizona law and calling Obama’s argument that it pre-empts federal law “without merit.” Almost 70 Democratic members have filed another brief arguing just the opposite.

The case is the second time this year that the Supreme Court has waded into a hot-button political issue. The court heard arguments last month on the president’s healthcare reform law, and is expected to issue a ruling this summer that could be a game-changer for the general election.

For Romney, the fallout from the Arizona case could depend on which comes first: the Supreme Court ruling or the introduction of Rubio’s version of the DREAM Act. If the court ruling comes first, strategists said, it could give Romney an opportunity to backtrack from the Arizona law and embrace Rubio’s plan without appearing to have flip-flopped.

For Obama, a ruling against the law could hurt him if it galvanizes conservatives and bolsters their argument that his administration has failed to secure the nation’s border.

On the other hand, a ruling to uphold the law could also energize his Democratic base and give the president another way to run against the Supreme Court in the fall. 

“Any attention that is given to this egregious law will help the president,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. “The more it’s discussed, the more it underscores what Romney said during the primary process, and that only hurts his campaign.”

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