Democrats jab Romney with Dream Act

House Democrats highlighted the Dream Act this week largely in hopes it will haunt Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.

Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus say Romney's opposition to the proposal – which would forge a pathway to citizenship for high achievers brought to the U.S. illegally as kids – exposes a candidate out of touch with Latinos, a fast-growing group that's sure to figure prominently in this year's elections.

The issue is proving a tough one for Romney, who tacked far to the right on immigration in the heat of the GOP primary and is now searching for ways to soften his position. The dilemma has left the former Massachusetts governor straddling efforts to cater to Latino voters – seen as vital in a number of swing states – without alienating the conservative hard-liners of his base who consider anything shy of deportation to be amnesty.

Appearing at a press event at the Capitol Thursday, Democrats seemed well aware of Romney's quandary and its potential influence on November's elections – and they came out swinging.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Texas) hammered Romney as a “Dream-basher;" Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) warned candidates that "the road to the White House goes through Latino neighborhoods;" and Rep. Charles Gonzalez, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), advised Latino voters to steer clear of candidates who oppose the Dream Act.

"As election season heats up, some elected officials and candidates are finally reaching out to Hispanics," Gonzalez said. "But their proposals, while disguised to help [Dream Act beneficiaries], will in fact permanently prevent young men and women from truly being a citizen of the country they love."

The Democrats have launched a campaign designed "to motivate and educate" Latinos that their votes "will be the voice for their undocumented friends, family members and classmates." Front and center of that push stands the Dream Act, which Romney has vowed to veto.

Complicating the debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) – a rising star in the Republican Party who is often mentioned on the short list of vice-presidential picks – is urging Romney and other GOP leaders to embrace a version of the Dream Act. Still just an outline, Rubio's proposal doesn't go as far as the Democrats' bill – it would offer legal status, but not citizenship, to qualifying beneficiaries, for instance – but it conveys a growing fear among some Republicans that the party's hard line on immigration is eroding any chance of gaining support from Latino voters.

"We have these very talented young people in America who find themselves in limbo through no fault of their own," Rubio, a Cuban-American, told reporters Thursday. "Our hope is to come up with something that he [Romney] can be supportive of."

The reason for all the jockeying is clear: Latinos are the fastest growing voting bloc in the country, doubling as a percentage of total voters in the 20 years between 1988 and 2008. Roughly 9.7 million Latino voters turned out in 2008 – 7.4 percent of the total – and they supported Obama by a ratio of 2:1. The figure is expected to increase to 12.2 million this year – a 25 percent jump in four years. 

Latinos voters are also more energized than other groups. Between 2004 and 2008, for instance, white turnout fell 1 percent, while Latino turnout rose 3 percent.

A recent Pew Research poll found Obama leading Romney among registered Latino voters by 40 percent. 

Romney's camp, in recent weeks, has sought to nibble away at Obama's sizable advantage when it comes to the Latino vote. On Thursday, his campaign issued a statement blaming the White House for high unemployment among Hispanics.

"Under President Obama, more Hispanics have struggled to find work than at any other time on record," the statement said, noting that the Latino unemployment rate went from 10 percent when Obama took office to 10.3 percent today.

Obama has had his share of confrontations with immigration reform advocates since entering the White House, particularly among those who feel he hasn't fought hard enough for certain campaign promises, including enactment of the Dream Act.

Still, Obama has never shied from his support for immigration reforms in voice, and Romney has a long record of hard-line positions on immigration that could make it difficult to bring Latino voters to his side.

As governor of Massachusetts, for example, Romney vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to undocumented students at state schools and universities – a move distinguishing him from another GOP presidential hopeful, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed a similar bill into law.

Romney says he's opposed to comprehensive immigration reform before "[we] secure our border." And he has welcomed the endorsement of Kris Kobach, a prominent anti-immigration activist who helped author the strict new immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama.

The Dream Act has lingered in Congress for more than a decade, but came closest to passing in 2010, when the House approved it under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The proposal fell in the Senate, where it came five votes short of defeating a GOP filibuster.

Though he's vowed to veto the bill, Romney has also emphasized that he supports those provisions benefiting illegal immigrants who enter the military.

But leaders of the CHC say there's much more at stake if the law doesn't pass in its entirety.

"The DREAM Act isn't just about Hispanics and isn't just about this year - it's about the future of this country," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). "Anything less won't work."

This story was updated on Monday April 23.