By Alexander Bolton - 03/27/12 09:00 AM EDT
Senate Republicans want to alter DREAM Act legislation to steal away Hispanic voters from Democrats.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the only Senate Republican of Hispanic heritage and a possible vice presidential pick, is working on an alternative version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age and serve in the military or attend college.
He declined to provide any details, but confirmed he hopes to have legislation soon.
A spokeswoman for Hutchison declined to comment, while a spokesman for Kyl did not respond to several requests for comment.
The efforts have unnerved Democratic leaders, who are watching warily — Democrats see their advantage over Republicans among Hispanic voters as one of the party’s greatest strengths in November.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) highlighted the worries when he warned Hispanic business leaders last week to not buy into GOP efforts on immigration and other issues ahead of the election.
At an event on Capitol Hill, Reid cautioned that if Republicans offer a new DREAM Act, it will be a watered-down version of the bill most Republicans opposed when it came up for a vote last year.
“While you’re here in town, don’t take the bait that will be given to you by my Republican friends,” said Reid, who acknowledged that a surge of support from Hispanic voters helped him win reelection in 2010 despite his low approval ratings.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to stop a watered-down version of the DREAM Act,” he said. “That’s what they’re pushing now.”
The GOP’s image among Hispanic voters is seen as one of its biggest liabilities heading to Election Day.
Recent polls show Romney trailing far behind President Obama among Hispanic voters. A survey by Fox News Latino showed Romney losing Hispanic voters by more than 50 points, and one by Univision, the Spanish-language television network, showed Romney behind by more than 30 points.
Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, said Republicans recognize they need to improve their image among Hispanic voters.
“This isn’t just about the presidential primary. This about how the party has handled the issue over the course of numerous cycles including midterm cycles,” said Diaz.
“Hispanics are concerned with the economy first and foremost, but if they perceive a party and its candidates to be hostile to an issue like immigration reform, it disallows the conversation to move forward in any meaningful way,” he added. “Republicans have been hurt by the tone and tenor of the conversation. There’s no disputing that.”
Diaz said he is “aware that people are considering taking steps to offer solutions,” but he said he could not confirm any details about the proposals Rubio, Kyl and Hutchison are considering.
Rubio entered the immigration debate earlier this month during an interview with Geraldo Rivera when he hinted at possible common ground for moving forward.
Rubio said the DREAM Act has “a series of problems” as now drafted.
“I do think there is another way to deal with this,” he said. “And I think that one of the debates that we need to begin to have is a difference between citizenship and legalization.
“You can legalize someone’s status in this country with a significant amount of certainty about their future without placing them on a path toward citizenship, and I think that is something that we can find consensus on,” he said.
But groups that advocate for immigrants are skeptical of reforms that fail to grant a path to citizenship.
“Any proposal that is put on the table as to the fate of these children, who are in all consideration American, should be measured by what place they’re going to have in our society,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at the National Council of La Raza.
Martinez said creating “a class of nation-less people” would not be good for the country.
Democrats say Republicans are trying to have it both ways by trying to ingratiate themselves with Hispanic voters without offending anti-immigration conservatives within their base.
“There’s definitely a buzz among Republicans to curry favor with Latino voters, but they want to do it in a way that their base doesn’t notice or get offended by,” said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “They’re floating a lot of test balloons. What they seem to be wanting to do is limit the scope of who’s covered and not offer citizenship.”
At a debate earlier this year, Romney and his then-closest rival for the nomination, Newt Gingrich, said they could support a version of the DREAM Act that gave legal residency to illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age if they served in the military.
Democrats in Congress rejected the potential compromise.