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GOP Alienates Latinos, Moderates With Immigration Enforcement Agenda

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The harsh stand on immigration by some GOP candidates surprises Lionel Sosa, a Republican ad man who calls the rising anti-immigrant rhetoric "grossly insensitive and irresponsible."

Sosa, who has crafted Latino-targeted campaigns for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and now Newt Gingrich, said the party's position on the highly contentious issue has taken a dramatic shift.

"The message has gone from immigration is something we should take care of under Ronald Reagan, to immigration is something we should fear," Sosa said in a phone interview.

He isn't the only one frustrated by new GOP perspective. Lauro Garza, head of the largest organization of Latino conservatives in Texas, abruptly quit the Republican Party last week, calling the party's anti-Latino position unbearable. And DeeDee Garcia Blasé, the founder of the same organization, Somos Republicans, said she thinks the party has strayed from what she called "Reagan's unique compassion for immigrants."

Critics within the GOP say the party's current stance on immigration stands in sharp contrast to the discourse of earlier decades, and warn that vitriolic language could hurt Republican candidates with moderate Republicans and Latino voters alike.

"I think that whoever the Republican nominee is -- if it is anyone other than Perry, Gingrich -- they're going to have a lot of back-peddling to do, especially because the Latino vote is so important in some states," Sosa said.

HARD LINE ON IMMIGRATION

During recent campaign stops and debates, some Republican candidates have ratcheted up their anti-immigrant talk, pledging aggressive measures to secure the border.

Herman Cain has suggested installing an electrified fence and placing armed troops with "real bullets" on the border. Michele Bachmann called for "a secure double fence" and the elimination of "taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal aliens." Rick Perry suggested enlisting Air Force Predator drones in immigration enforcement missions on the Mexican-American border, which would add to the expanding fleet of Predators alreadyused by Homeland Security. At one debate, when Ron Paul pledged to "attack their benefits," such as "free education" and "birth right citizenship," he was met with a roar of applause. The RNC didn't respond to a request for comment on the party's stance on immigration.

Those remarks would sound quite foreign to Republican presidential candidates from three decades ago. During the 1980 presidential campaign, both Reagan and the senior Bush focused on the human side of the immigration debate, not immigration enforcement.

"Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don't we work on some recognition of our mutual problems, and make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit," Reagan said. Bush said the children of undocumented immigrants should "get what society is giving to their neighbors." He called Mexican immigrants "good people" and "strong people."

WATCH Reagan And H.W. Bush An Free Education For Undocumented Immigrants In Texas:

When Romney answered a similar question on immigration at a late September primary debate, a radically different frame on the issue was offered. Romney described providing equal access to higher education for undocumented immigrants as an argument "he just can't follow."

WATCH Romney And Perry Answer A Similar Question:

And even if their policies don't always line up with the former president, many Republican candidates have made a habit of invoking Reagan's legacy during this campaign -- during an earlier September primary debate, Republican candidates said Reagan's name at least two dozen times.

That got the field into hot water with Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis. After the debate, Davis questioned in a Time magazine op-ed whether the candidates were being honest when they praised Reagan; she said she didn't see her father's actual opinions reflected in the words of the candidates. Davis, without addressing immigration specifically, said the candidates could "invoke my father's name until your tongues fall out, but you will never be anywhere near his shadow."

Explanations for the harsher tone on immigration vary, from post-9/11 security concerns and the increased numbers of undocumented immigrants to the rise of "opinion journalism" from outlets such as Fox News.

"We have a number of politicians and pundits and opinion journalists to thank for this," said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors hate groups and extremism in the U.S. "We are reaping what is sewn from their demonizing language."

Whatever the cause, it would be hard imagine today's GOP proposing similar legislation to the 1986 amnesty bill that granted legal status to nearly three million undocumented immigrants -- a law many Republicans now view as one of Reagan's greatest failures during his presidency.

But former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson said in an interview with NPR that the legislation fit firmly within Reagan's beliefs:

"It was in Ronald Reagan's bones -- it was part of his understanding of America," Robinson said, "that the country was fundamentally open to those who wanted to join us here."

REAGAN REPUBLICANOS

With that message largely missing from today's Republican party, many moderate and Latino Republicans say they no longer feel their views are being represented by party leaders. Somos Republicans founder Garcia Blase said she joined the Republican Party precisely because of the ideals Reagan expressed.

"I joined the party because of my strong belief in capitalism and national security," said Garcia Blase, a fifth generation Mexican-American and a former business owner who served in the U.S. Air Force during the senior Bush administration. "But the Republican Party has lost its way."

She said the current Republican candidates simply don't trust Latino immigrants.

"They've dehumanized the undocumented immigrant, and people that look like them," Garcia Blase said. "I'm angry that I have to be defending my rights against laws like those in Arizona. I was willing to die for this country, and now I have to defend myself?"

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