Republicans need to be very careful about how they respond to Obama’s new immigration announcement, because Americans view the issue as one about fundamental fairness. If the GOP loses the Latino vote in the same way it has lost blacks, it won’t be able to win future presidential elections.

So claims GOP strategist Ed Rollins in an interview with me about Obama’s new policy blocking deportations of DREAM-eligible youth.

“They should not have been caught with their pants down,” Rollins said of Republicans, adding that they were caught “flat-footed” by the announcement. “They needed to be better prepared.”

“The hardest thing [for Republicans] about the immigration debate is that it’s a question of fairness,” continued Rollins, who was chief strategist for Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign and ran Ronald Reagan’s reelection effort in 1984. “A lot of people know a lot of good people who came into this country illegally and are trying to buy into the American Dream.”

“If we ever lose the Hispanic vote the way we’ve lost the African American vote, there’s no way we’ll win in presidential politics,” Rollins concluded.

This is becoming a more and more common refrain. Over the weekend George Will argued (link fixed) that if Romney drops below the 31 percent of Latinos John McCain won in 2008, “he’s going to lose.”

All of this raises a question: Will conservative hard-liners on immigration grant Mitt Romney the maneuvering room he needs to try to navigate the issue in a way that doesn’t cost him the election? On Friday Romney expressed general sympathy with Marco Rubio’s view of the issue, and on CBS yesterday, Romney refused to say that he would repeal Obama’s new policy.

But as Kevin Drum notes, conservative leaders have not responded with the thunderous denunciations you’d expect, and GOP process criticism seems somewhat pro forma. Maybe Rollins’ view that the GOP is at risk of putting itself at a serious long term disadvantage in presidential elections is even sinking in with the hardliners.

After all, the conservative and Republican response to Obama’s announcement that he now supports gay marriage was relatively muted, too, with some Republicans even suggesting that criticizing his position too loudly risked stereotyping the party as intolerant among swing and young voters. Perhaps demographic realities — and the accompanying political ones — are becoming harder and harder to ignore.