Sixteen months after losing the White House and realizing that it must reach out to Latinos, the Republican Party is spending $10 million to ramp up Hispanic field operations in key states and flood Spanish-language news media with advertisements opposing the nation’s health-care law.
In Washington, however, the party’s bid to improve its standing among the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc continues to be overshadowed by strenuous opposition — some say hostility — to immigration reform.
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to eliminate the public advocate for immigrants who face hearings at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And this week, House Republicans overwhelmingly supported a bill called the Enforce Act, which would limit President Obama’s use of “prosecutorial discretion” — the legal rationale used to stop deportations of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants.
GOP aides said the bills were not intended as anti-immigration measures but rather to rein in executive overreach by Obama in a broad array of areas, and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) says that immigration reform is simply on hold. But Democrats pounced on the measures, and immigrant advocates quickly denounced the Republican votes.
The latest machinations within the GOP come at a time of mounting dissatisfaction from Latino groups toward Obama on the issue of deportation. In a meeting Thursday, Obama told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to find ways to conduct deportation policies “more humanely,” the White House said.
Given Obama’s troubles, some Republicans say the party is missing a chance to make inroads with the Hispanic community, which will be critical in 2016.
“We’ve gone from having a strategy of, ‘We’re going to do this, and this is how it’s going to happen,’ to now simply saying, ‘Well, perhaps we have a chance to do something,’ ” Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said of immigration legislation. “And it sounds like, ‘We have no idea, no control, let’s just see what happens.’ ”
The risks of the current GOP approach were apparent Thursday morning, when Boehner was ambushed by immigration activists while eating breakfast at a Capitol Hill diner. The activists were angered by the House’s embrace of the Enforce Act, , which would potentially limit Obama’s ability to stem deportations as he did in 2012 for a group of young immigrants who have come to be known as “Dreamers” in connection with a different measure.
“Speaker Boehner, I just want to ask you why you want to break the dream of the Dreamers, of the students?” one woman said.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, that is not very nice,” he replied during the exchange, which was caught on video by activists from the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM). Boehner then got up and left. It was the second time in five months that immigration activists had confronted him at the same restaurant. A spokesman for Boehner declined to comment.
At a news conference later Thursday, Boehner said immigration “ought to be dealt with,” but he did not specify a timetable or strategy for advancing legislation.
Last month, under pressure from rank-and-file members worried about an immigration vote before the fall midterm election, Boehner said the House would not entertain legislation until Obama earned more GOP trust.
Advocates said they are perplexed by Republican leaders’ unwillingness to move forward.
“We think it’s in their self-interest to take action — not out of the goodness of their hearts but because there’s a political imperative,” said Kica Matos, a FIRM spokeswoman.
For now, top GOP officials want to talk about almost anything but immigration when they make their pitch to Latinos.
In the wake of Republican Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama in November 2012, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a report that concluded the party should support immigration reform as a way to expand its appeal to Latinos and other minority groups.
Since then, the RNC has launched “Hispanic engagement field teams” in nine states, with 20 paid staff members on the ground, a spokeswoman said. The RNC says it has “made contact” with 27,000 Latinos, and next week RNC members will attend the annual Puerto Rican Day parade in Orlando for the first time.
But the party apparatus has focused most of its outreach message on the Affordable Care Act, hoping to capitalize on the troubled rollout of the president’s signature domestic initiative in the fall. In an advertising campaign on Spanish-language media, the RNC highlighted technical problems with the health-care Web site and the cost of signing up for insurance plans.
Latinos have consistently held a more positive opinion of the law than the general public, but uncertainty remains. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in February, 46 percent of Hispanics viewed it favorably, 29 percent viewed it unfavorably and 26 percent had no opinion.
Rosario Marin, who was U.S. treasurer under George W. Bush, said the effect of the legislative impasse on Republicans is overstated and neutralized by Obama’s struggles with the immigrant community over deportations.
Marin, who now serves as an RNC advisory board member, pointed to GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s reelection last year in New Jersey, where he won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, and to Republican David Jolly’s victory in a special congressional election in Florida this week as evidence that the national debate on immigration has not hurt GOP efforts.
Marin also said immigration is not the most important issue to Latinos. A Pew Hispanic Center survey in the fall found that the topic ranked behind education, the economy and health care.
“The message we are going to give Latinos,” Marin said, “is about jobs, about education and about Obamacare.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.