WASHINGTON -- GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced on Wednesday an endorsement from Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped write laws meant to drive immigrants out of states like Arizona and Alabama.
The endorsement, which came out the same day as a Spanish-language ad from Romney, is part of an attempt to thread the needle on immigration enforcement. Republican hardliners decry "amnesty" for nearly every form of legalization of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
In South Carolina, the next primary state after Romney's clear victory in New Hampshire, Republicans passed an anti-unauthorized immigration law in 2011. Romney's Spanish-language ad is airing in Florida, the primary state after South Carolina, where he already has the endorsement of U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). All three supported the Dream Act, and have acknowledged they disagree with Romney on some immigration issues.
Latino voters, a rapidly-growing part of the electorate, largely support immigration reform that includes legalization -- and many believe the rhetoric of the Republican party is "outright hostile" to them, according to a recent poll from Univision and Latino Decisions.
In a statement released Wednesday, Romney praised Kobach's efforts to cut down on unauthorized immigration and said he will support the South Carolina and Alabama immigration laws.
"I'm so proud to earn Kris's support," Romney said. "Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country."
Romney said the country needs "more conservative leaders like Kris willing to stand up for the rule of law" and that he will work with Kobach "to take forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration."
Kobach is one of the chief supporters of state-led immigration crackdowns, and helped draft SB 1070, the first of a wave of such laws in Arizona. Since then, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama have passed similar laws to SB 1070. The Justice Department under Obama has challenged those laws, many of which have been partially blocked, usually because judges ruled that the legislation preempts the federal government's duty of policing immigration.
Kobach is planning to launch an anti-immigration effort in Kansas this year.
Proving toughness on immigration is becoming a key issue during the GOP primary, and support for state laws is a way for candidates to show they would crack down on unauthorized immigration if elected president.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also praised the South Carolina immigration law, notably just after he was criticized by other candidates for saying he would allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States.
"Clearly the Obama administration has been comfortable allowing foreign governments to enter a lawsuit against an American state. So here's a simple way to think of it: President Obama sided with Mexico, I would side with South Carolina," Gingrich said in November.
Romney put out mailers earlier this month that said he would stop illegal border crossings and end "magnets" to the country, a term used for benefits to undocumented immigrants such as laws that allow some to receive in-state tuition. Romney also opposes the Dream Act, which would give legal status to some undocumented immigrants who came as children and completed two years of college or military service, and has said he would veto the law if it came to his desk.
Romney said last week that Latino voters would support that view because they want a better economy. (A strong majority of Latino voters support the Dream Act, although they say the economy is also a major factor for them this election.)
"If they want a president who is going to talk to them about a handout or more benefits for free, they got that guy," Romney said of President Barack Obama. "If they, instead, want a president who understands the economy, who has lived in the economy and understands what it takes to help people get jobs again, then I'm that person."