The ruling came as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been struggling to connect with Hispanics after courting conservative primary voters with sharp rhetoric against illegal immigration. A survey published Monday showed him favored by just one-fourth of Hispanics.
The quandary for Romney and the GOP is clear from recent polling. The Arizona law is very popular with whites and independent voters, according to data from the Pew Research Center, while many GOP strategists think their party has little chance for success in battlegrounds such as Colorado, Nevada and Virginia if Romney doesn’t win close to 40 percent of Hispanics.
The tension among Republicans over immigration has been a years-long struggle and became a point of contention during the GOP primaries, when Romney sought to win over skeptical conservative voters by attacking leading rivals for their more liberal immigration views.
In recent weeks, President Obama has increased the pressure on Romney, announcing that he would halt deportations of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants — action that Hispanic activists had been urging for a long time.
And some leading Republicans, including former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, have publicly expressed concern that Romney’s positions allow Democrats to portray the GOP as anti-Hispanic.
Romney took a first step toward trying to repair the damage last week, when he told a conference of Hispanic public officials that he would pursue bipartisan fixes to immigration policy in a “civil” manner. He offered to loosen some restrictions on foreign-worker visas. But he did not back down from his more hard-line immigration views, and on Monday, Roy Beck, president of the anti-illegal-immigration group NumbersUSA, called Romney’s statements a “tremendous victory for our side.”
Now, some said Monday, a mixed ruling from a conservative court might change the conversation.
“I’m hoping this decision, which included Justice Roberts, will send a message to conservatives that we cannot allow a few states that don’t represent the majority of Republicans and a few political leaders to define the conservative narrative on immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a Hispanic Republican who heads the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
Romney appeared to be walking a careful line after the ruling.
He had once called Arizona’s broader approach to immigration enforcement a “model” for the country, pointing to a requirement that businesses check the legal status of workers. And he had vowed to reverse the Obama administration’s challenge to the specific law tweaked Monday by the Supreme Court. But in the wake of the court’s ruling, his support for that measure, known as SB 1070, seemed more muted.