By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A01
President Obama and his political aides privately acknowledge that the government's decision to sue Arizona over its new immigration law is helping to fuel an anti-immigration fervor that could benefit some Republicans in elections this fall.
But White House officials have concluded that, over the long term, the Republicans' get-tough message is a major political miscalculation. They predict it will ultimately alienate millions of Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the nation.
West Wing strategists argue that the president's call for legislation that acknowledges the role of immigrants and goes beyond punishing undocumented workers will help cement a permanent political relationship between Democrats and Hispanics -- much as civil rights and voting rights legislation did for the party and African Americans in the 1960s.
As a result, although the president is unlikely to press for comprehensive immigration reform this year, he has urged his allies to keep up the pressure on Republican lawmakers.
"Look: The Republicans, if you do the math, cannot be successful as a national party if they continue to alienate Latinos," said one Democratic strategist familiar with White House thinking on the issue.
Another top Democrat who has advised the administration on immigration added: "If the Republicans continue on the same course they are on, the politics of immigration are potentially devastating to their party."
Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about White House strategy.
Last month, Obama invited a small group of influential Latino activists to the White House and reassured them that he is committed to reform. But to succeed, he said, they had to stop their public complaining about how slowly he was moving and instead direct their fire at Republicans.
The activists came away from their presidential audience still convinced that he could be doing more to push the issue. But their discussion with Obama -- and a lengthier one with adviser Valerie Jarrett after he left the room -- made one thing clear to them: The White House plans to use the immigration debate to punish the GOP and aggressively seek the Latino vote in 2012.
"The president fundamentally understands that this is about the longer term," said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, who attended the White House meeting. "This issue goes deeper than any list of needs. Your answer on this question will reveal to us whether you do or don't understand our community."
Advisers to the president say his long-standing position on immigration is not motivated by presidential politics. But in a few years, they predict, the Latino population will surge in "red" states, where residents have traditionally voted for Republicans in presidential contests. States such as Texas, which has been a GOP stronghold for a generation, could become permanently "purple" tossups if Republicans do not repair their image.
"The one thing that has the potential to grab a large part of that constituency is to actually show them respect for being here, being here legally, being part of the community," said a senior Democratic Party official. "The fight over immigration is a proxy for tolerance. It's a proxy for diversity."
Lionel Sosa, who has advised Republican candidates including George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) on Latino issues, said the GOP needs to be careful about how its policies are being received in the Hispanic community.
"We must care about the people that we lured here to do the jobs we don't train our children to do," Sosa said. "If we forget those people, we are going to do ourselves a great disservice. . . . That comes off as insensitive, uncaring to the Latino community."
Ruy Teixeira, who studies Hispanic demographics for the liberal Center for American Progress, said the growth in the number of Hispanics in states including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Texas will give Democrats a significant edge in 2012 unless Republicans find a way to change the way they are perceived.
"It's like having a thumb on the scales that's getting heavier as the time goes by," Teixeira said.
Yet even some longtime Obama allies caution that the president shouldn't be too quick to count those votes. The Hispanic community is varied and complex, and previous efforts by both parties to win its allegiance didn't meet much success.
For their predictions to come true, they say, Democrats must deliver not only on Obama's promise of immigration reform but also on improving the economic conditions of Latinos. Unemployment among Hispanics is at 12.4 percent, well above the 9.5 percent rate for the rest of the country.
"This demographic group, like others, is expecting results," said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager in 2008. "If they haven't seen results, it's not going to be that easy."
Obama won the Hispanic vote by a 36-point margin. Hildebrand predicted that the president will have a difficult time duplicating that number in 2012 unless he has shown them results.
"I just don't think it's going to be that easy," he said. "We can't assume that immigration is the number one issue, or the only issue. If anything, I think we need to spend even more time trying to create jobs and deliver."
GOP pollster Neil Newhouse conceded that Republicans have had "a significant challenge with Hispanic voters" in recent years. But he said it's not clear that those voters' long-term political allegiance will be determined by a candidate's position on immigration.
"I'd rather win them over on economic issues and taxing-and-spending issues than on the issue of illegal immigration," Newhouse said. "Democrats are rolling the dice that this is going to help them more in '12 than it's going to hurt them in '10. That calculation is very risky."
In May, the Service Employees International Union gave a private polling presentation to strategists at the Democratic National Committee. It indicated how difficult it may be for either party to solidify Latino support.
The group's survey of Hispanic voters in Arizona shortly after the state's governor signed the controversial bill into law concluded that their anger was largely directed at Republicans.
But the poll also showed that even in Arizona, where the issue is the hottest, Latinos were not automatically pledging their votes for Democrats.
One of the presentation's concluding slides read: "GOP costs more severe, but enthusiasm for Democrats is severely constrained by perceived inaction. There is not a knee-jerk swell of support for Democrats, Latinos are proceeding very cautiously with respect to Democratic support."
Said Hildebrand: "It's a situation where Democrats need to make sure they are delivering for Hispanic voters. If they are not standing up and fighting for them every step of the way, we don't deserve to have a lock."