WASHINGTON -- Republicans could be hurting their general election chances by calling for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and vowing not to reform the system until the border is secured, a pollster and a Republican strategist said on Tuesday.
"Your grandmother once told you that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," Gary Segura, a Stanford University professor and the head of the polling firm Latino Decisions, said on a conference call Tuesday. "The truth is that...if Republicans would just shut up, they would do better among Latino voters. I think the drumbeat of negativity really hurts their brand."
All seven major Republican candidates have called for stronger border enforcement, insisting the southwestern border should be closed off -- either with a fence or with more boots on the ground -- before any type of legalization can take place. Beyond that, few have offered plans for dealing with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, other than to say many of them should be deported.
Republican strategist Hector Barajas warned that may be a mistake, especially among Latino voters who generally support some immigration reform.
A majority of Latino voters believe that candidates who call for border security, a vague term that gives little insight into what full "security" would mean, are attempting to delay immigration enforcement, according to a poll released earlier this month by Univision and Latino Decisions.
"Latinos would be fine if you mention 'let's secure the border,' but at the same time they're wanting to hear the rest of your plan," Barajas told HuffPost. "This idea that you can just secure the border and we'll do the rest later is something that has been told year after year, election cycle after election cycle. They want to hear what happens after that."
At the same time, Segura and Barajas said that Republicans could be seizing an opportunity to gain votes in the Latino community.
Obama won in 2008 with a strong showing from Latino voters, 67 percent of whom voted for him over Republican candidate John McCain. Since then, though, Obama broke a campaign promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform and has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. Latinos in general may feel that Democrats take them for granted, Segura told HuffPost on Nov. 9, after 32 percent of those polled by Latino Decisions said that Democrats seem to not care much about them.
"There is a very large opening there for Republicans, given that Obama is basically considered to be the number one separator of Latino families," Barajas said.
Obama said earlier this month that he was confident he could win Latino voters, in part because of the harsh rhetoric on immigration from Republican candidates. He was the leader over Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain in the Univision-Latino Decisions poll.
"I don't think it requires us to go negative in the sense of us running a bunch of ads that are false, or character assassinations," Obama told Univision News earlier this month. "It will be based on facts ... We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won't even comment on them, we'll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds."
Republican candidates may also be hurting their chances by failing to reach out to Latino voters. The campaigns have had little outreach to Latinos, save some exceptions, such as a Spanish-language Twitter feed from Newt Gingrich. Five GOP candidates opted out of an opportunity to speak directly to Latino voters, announcing in October they would boycott a debate on Univision, a major Spanish-language channel.
"You have to show up. you have to go into these communities, you have to have this conversation," Barajas said. "When you do show up, if all you talk about is deportation, then they think of you as a bad person."
So far, nearly all of the candidates have decried "amnesty," another vague term generally applied to the legalization of undocumented immigrants. Romney attacked Perry for signing a 2001 bill that allows some undocumented students to receive in-state tuition in Texas, calling it "amnesty" and a magnet for unauthorized immigration.
During a GOP debate last week, Romney also dug into Newt Gingrich for his immigration stances, after the candidate said he wants a "humane" approach to undocumented immigration and that Republicans, as "the party of the family," should not go about destroying families through deportation.
Perry and Gingrich said they oppose amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Since then, they have both attempted to boost their conservative immigration credentials.
During a Tuesday campaign appearance in New Hampshire, Perry hinted that he is still unsure how he would deal with the undocumented immigrants currently in the country, although he said he opposes telling them "that's all forgiven."
"Amnesty is not on the table period. There will be no amnesty in the United States," Perry said, according to ABC News. "We're a country of law and the idea that we're going to tell people that somehow or another that that's all forgiven is not going to happen. How we deal with them is a conversation. I don't know if I know all the answers. I want to talk to the American people."
Gingrich, meanwhile, clarified his immigration position, which would legalize very few of the undocumented immigrants in the country. He also stated his support for an immigration law in South Carolina that mirrors Arizona's SB 1070, which would allow police to inquire about immigration status with the aim of driving undocumented immigrants out of the state.
Barajas said Gingrich's previous statements on "humane" enforcement could help him among Latino voters. But Frank Sharry, executive director of the advocacy group America's Voice, said Gingrich's proposed reforms are too minor to create major shifts in support, even if they sounded appealing at first.
"For someone who's dying in the desert of thirst, a little cup of water looks really good," he said on the conference call. "Honestly, when he clarified his remarks in Florida over the weekend, what he was saying is that most people should go home."