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The Florida Primary and Immigration

Author: Toni Johnson
January 31, 2012

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Republican contenders toured Florida ahead of the January 31 primary, attempting to highlight their stances on immigration and attract Latino voters (SFGate). Though many analysts say that the number one Latino issue is jobs and the economy (NYT), immigration is expected to resonate strongly with those voters as well.

What's at Stake

Florida, a major swing state, could prove to be a testing ground for the GOP based on how well candidates perform with Latinos there. Florida has the third-largest number of eligible Latino voters in the country, with Democrats having a slight edge over Republicans (PDF) in Latino voter registrations, according to the Washington-based nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. Latinos are one of the fastest growing populations in the country and have been responsible for about half the country's population growth (FT) in the last decade. Some analysts suggest a major misstep on immigration in Florida could affect candidates' chances with Latinos elsewhere.

The immigration issue also holds significant stakes for the country as a whole. As a 2009 CFR Task Report notes, the lack of reform weakens the U.S. economy, jeopardizes diplomacy, and imperils national security. Congress and the Obama administration have made little progress on comprehensive reform, which would revise everything from worker-eligibility verification to improving the visa and guest-worker regimes to addressing the status of millions of undocumented people living in the United States. Since 2010, the debate over immigration has become increasingly contentious as a number of states, including South Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona, have attempted to implement laws designed at curbing undocumented residents, with most of those laws now under court challenge.

The Debate

The debate over immigration has largely been about where to focus efforts on reform. Some advocates focus largely on enforcement, arguing that illegal immigration is unfair to legal immigrants, harmful to U.S. workers, and dangerous to security. Others say the current situation damages the U.S. economy through a broken U.S. visa system and alienates millions of legal immigrants, many of whom have familial ties to undocumented residents. Those advocates focus on expanding access to H1B work visas and creating a path to citizenship for undocumented residents.

However, these arguments do not break down neatly along party lines; Republicans and President Obama embrace aspects of both sides. President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address highlighted his work to reduce illegal immigration, such as increasing deportations, and called for Congress to work on more comprehensive reform. GOP candidates have also have called for improving access to legal immigration while arguing for better border protections and worker verification rules. Still, analysts, including prominent Republicans, say GOP candidates must be careful (Salon) about how they juggle pleasing a base that has taken a hard line on reducing illegal immigration and avoiding alienating Latino voters and moderates.

Policy Options

MIT's John Tirman criticizes the tenor of the GOP candidates' discussions on immigration and also faults President Obama (HuffingtonPost) for not moving effectively on immigration reform.

Pushing through comprehensive reform, or even piecemeal bills, in an election year after so many years of failure is doubtful, and the focus of the debate is likely to remain on the legality and impact of state immigration policies, say some analysts. Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League says, "Whether America is successful in reforming [immigration] depends on the tone of the discussion in this country, guidance from the courts, and the prevailing political winds."

Background Materials

Liam Schwartz and CFR's Ted Alden look at ways to improve the U.S. visa system in this Policy Innovation Memo.

This CFR Issue Tracker looks at candidates' stances on immigration.

[Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.]

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