WASHINGTON — Republicans' dismal performance among the growing ranks of Latino voters has unleashed a bout of GOP hand-wringing over the party's approach to illegal immigration, but Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers are treading cautiously.
President Obama enjoyed a 44-point advantage among Latinos on Nov. 6. Republican nominee Mitt Romney received only 27 percent of the Latino vote, down from the 31 percent Republicans scored in 2008.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reiterated to his members after returning to Capitol Hill what he said publicly last week: that tackling immigration is long overdue.
“Certainly, if you have the Republican speaker saying that we need to deal with this issue, that's probably been the most discussion we've had in the last four years,” Rep. Lee Terry told The World-Herald.
The Omaha Republican survived a squeaker of a race last week, edging out Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, home to a large Latino population.
Terry said he was willing to work with Democrats on immigration changes, but only if they recognize the need for a strong employment authorization verification system such as E-verify.
“If they're willing to sit down and talk about things like border security and a true, solid E-verify program, then there's a lot of room for discussion after that,” Terry said.
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said he wouldn't back any proposal without seeing the specifics but said Republicans need to address immigration.
“You're not going to have people go to the front of the line as far as citizenship, but I think your opportunity for (legal) status is probably being discussed, at least,” Latham said.
Still, it's clear GOP lawmakers are hesitant to back anything that might be viewed as amnesty.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said that while the immigration system needs fixing, “upholding the rule of law must be a priority.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., focused on the need to secure the border, crack down on employers and streamline the process for those seeking to enter the country lawfully.
“We also need to spur foreign policy reforms that create hope and opportunity in other countries, thereby decreasing the need for economic migration,” Fortenberry said.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he's not sure passing legislation will translate into electoral success.
“Immigration may be a problem, but I don't know whether it's a sure thing that if we Republicans help pass an immigration bill that it's going to get us a lot of Hispanic votes,” Grassley said.
Congress' emphasis should be on improving the economy and creating jobs for millions of unemployed workers, he said.
Still, he said, Republicans do need to improve their outreach to minorities.
“What you have to do is make sure that you talk in a way that doesn't look like you're against people that aren't white males, as an example,” Grassley said. “That's a very important thing.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said the Latino community should be a natural fit for Republicans, considering that many are conservative on such social issues as abortion, but immigration keeps rearing its head.
Johanns said the current system is a mess, but he's not sure where the debate will go.
“We can't let people who came here illegally jump the system, if you will,” Johanns said. “They can't get in front of other people who have followed the law and obeyed the law. And you can't just do blanket amnesty because that doesn't solve the problem. It just sends a signal to the whole world that ... 'Come on over, slip into our country and at some point you'll get a free pass.'”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an outspoken firebrand against illegal immigration, vowed to continue defending the rule of law amid all the talk of reform.
He, like Grassley, questioned whether an immigration overhaul would benefit Republicans at the ballot box, saying that Romney did almost as well among Latinos as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and that Romney's loss had more to do with the gender gap and low turnout among evangelicals and Ron Paul supporters.
“They just came to an early conclusion that it was because we didn't write the comprehensive immigration reform, so therefore there was a backlash,” King said of his fellow Republicans, “and I said there are all kinds of reasons ... and I know that that wasn't why Romney lost Iowa or Ohio.”
He also described what he called the “King Axiom.”
“Newly arriving immigrants will assimilate into the politics of the locale where they arrive,” he said. “I made this case to Mitt Romney, and I said if you don't believe that, then go to Boston and find me an Irish Catholic Republican.”
He said he has no confidence that the administration will enforce the nation's immigration laws.
Contact the writer: 202-630-4823, firstname.lastname@example.org