Votes on immigration policy could hurt VP chances for Sen. Portman, Rep. Ryan

Controversial votes to crack down on illegal immigrants could hurt the chances of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) or Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) landing on the Republican presidential ticket.

The two men are rising stars in the GOP believed to be on the shortlist of possible running mates for Mitt Romney.

But their prospects could be endangered by their votes on legislation that pro-immigrant advocates describe as “mean-spirited” and still sparks anger among Hispanic voters.

This could boost Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has less experience in Washington and is considered relatively untested. Rubio, the Senate’s only Hispanic Republican, is working on an alternative to the Democrats’ DREAM Act, which could serve as a bridge to Hispanic voters.

Republican strategists say Romney must improve his appeal among Hispanic voters, a large and growing electoral bloc, if he is to defeat President Obama.

Romney was overheard last month telling donors, “We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party.” He warned that failure to whittle away at Obama’s popularity among Hispanic voters “spells doom for us.”

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found Obama leading Romney among Hispanics 67 percent to 27, a bigger margin than Obama enjoyed over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 election.

But Romney’s push to make inroads with Hispanics could face a steeper climb if Portman or Ryan is with him on the presidential ticket.

Ryan voted in December of 2005 for a border security bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that pro-immigrant advocates describe as the most outrageous anti-immigrant and anti-Latino legislation of the past decade.

The bill, which did not pass the Senate, would have criminalized violations of federal immigration law and shifted enforcement responsibility to state and local authorities. Illegal immigrants who violated certain provisions would have been listed in a national crime information database.

The legislation prompted mass protests by Hispanics nationwide several months after it passed the House.

Ryan also voted against the DREAM Act, which Democratic leaders brought to the House floor at the end of 2010. It would have provided illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age a pathway to citizenship if they met certain requirements.

A spokesman for Ryan did not respond to a request for comment.

Portman had left the House by December of 2005, dodging a tough vote on the Sensenbrenner bill, but he voted for other legislation that could land him in trouble with Hispanic voters.

In March of 1996, Portman voted for an amendment sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) that would have given states the option of denying public immigration benefits to illegal immigrants.

Portman also voted for a 1994 proposal to prohibit the Federal Emergency Management Agency from providing emergency food and shelter to undocumented immigrants unless the president declares a federal emergency.

Pro-immigrant advocates said Democrats would blast Portman for these votes if Romney puts him on the ticket.

During his 2010 Senate campaign, Portman said he supports legal immigration.

“The United States owes its solid foundation to the hard work of generations of legal immigrants. This means that we should keep the doors of America open to those who come legally and enrich our society and contribute to our economic prosperity while doing a better job of enforcing our laws,” said Portman spokesman Jeff Sadosky. “The first priority of our immigration policy must be to enforce our immigration laws at the border and in the interior, stopping illegal entry not just of those seeking work but those who seek to harm us.”

Portman has also voted for measures that pro-immigrant groups such as America’s Voice supported, but they are not viewed as having the same importance as the Gallegly amendment.

Greg Beckwith contributed.