WASHINGTON -- It's a crucial statistic, and it animates the ferocious debate about immigration now consuming Congress: Of the 12 million Hispanic Americans who voted in 2012, only some 4 million voted for the Republican presidential candidate, Ol' Whatshisname.

Without a much better showing in future elections, the GOP has little hope of avoiding what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) calls a long-term demographic "death spiral."

Which is why it isn't surprising that the preliminary skirmishes of the GOP's 2016 campaign are over immigration reform: how to secure U.S. borders while offering citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, some 8 million of whom came from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Paradoxically -- but perhaps hopefully for the GOP -- a surprisingly large number of its key 2016 players are Latinos. Their prominence is fortunate for the party. Their chances of rising to the top could well be boosted by their own life histories.

Democrats claim to be unimpressed. "The problem with the GOP and Latinos is ideological," said Sergio Bendixen, a leading Democratic strategist in the community. "It can no longer be solved with a Bush-like strategy based on 'hugs and kisses' or with charismatic Latino personalities, especially considering the fact that the two best-known are Cuban-American." (Cuban Americans already tend to be more conservative than their fellow Hispanics.)

"Latinos support a strong government role in the economy, a U.N.-based foreign policy, socialized medicine, public education, generous social and welfare programs," Bendixen told me. "They are probably the most left-wing constituency in our electorate. It's a tough challenge for the GOP to connect."

Still, the Republicans' crisis could be -- indeed for the party, almost has to be -- an opportunity for their Latino leaders.

Marco Rubio, a freshman senator from Florida who is the son of Cuban immigrants, leads the Republican immigration reform effort in the Senate. A potential ally -- or foe -- is another freshman senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father was also a Cuban émigré.

In Massachusetts, Gabriel Gomez, a businessman, former Navy SEAL and son of Colombian immigrants, is the Republican candidate in a race to fill the unexpired Senate term of Secretary of State John Kerry. Should Gomez pull an upset against Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, he would immediately become a player not only in the Senate, but in the GOP nationally.

It's also worth remembering that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's wife is from Mexico (he met her as an exchange student); that Bush himself speaks fluent Spanish; and that his older brother, George W., won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote -- an all-time high for the GOP -- in his 2004 presidential reelection campaign.

Even possible Republican contenders who aren't Latino and don't speak Spanish are maneuvering their way carefully through the immigration reform debate. They, as much as the others, need to find a way to balance anti-immigrant sentiment at the GOP's grassroots with a more welcoming message to Hispanics.

So how are they approaching the issue so far, both as a matter of substance and as a test of their political maneuvering toward 2016?

Having been lauded by Big Media as a charming, photogenic, striving savior of the party, Rubio made bold to take the Senate lead on immigration, even though he is only serving his first term. In a Congress that has an increasingly hard time dealing with complex issues -- and that has failed to pass a major immigration reform measure in more than 20 years -- his charge to the front was the equivalent of a college freshman going immediately for a Ph.D.

To his credit, Rubio worked with a bipartisan "gang of eight" to hash out a compromise bill, although it was one he knew –- or should have known -- was too "soft" for much of his own party because it offered too many benefits to immigrants and not enough guaranteed border security. But since then, he has moved steadily to the right, even suggesting that he might oppose his own legislation if it does not incorporate tougher provisions than he was willing to insist on initially.

At only 42, Rubio won't be made or broken as a leader by the fate of the immigration bill. Still, a legislative triumph would show a level of skill and drive that could only enhance his 2016 prospects.

Cruz, so forceful and almost alarmingly blunt on most issues, is being careful on this one, at least so far.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was denounced by anti-immigration reform leaders this spring after he declared his general support for the effort. But when the gang of eight's bill was panned even by Rubio, Paul moved more aggressively to propose his own amendments. One would deny benefits to immigrants in the "pipeline" toward legalization; another would require detailed, yearly certification of progress toward a locked-tight southern U.S. border before undocumented immigrants get on the citizenship path.

Jeb Bush, playing the Florida and Bush-family senior statesman, has largely stayed above the congressional fray so far. He's confined himself to oddly laudatory statements about immigrants (they "are more fertile, and they love their families, and they have more intact families ...") and to joining with Karl Rove and mainstream business types as signatories on a newspaper ad calling for a tough but fair bill.

The consensus among GOP insiders is that either Rubio or Bush will run in 2016, but not both. For now they are allies; we'll see if it stays that way.

Supporters of Rand Paul are hoping that Bush does enter the race. They want to see him vacuum up the Florida cash that otherwise would go to someone they evidently fear more: Rubio.

Cruz has yet to make clear which way he will ultimately head on the still-evolving reform bill.

As for other possible GOP presidential contenders -- governors such as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- they haven't become leading players in this immigration drama. But if they are serious about running in 2016, they will have to.

For the game has already begun inside the Beltway.

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  • The Naturalization Act of 1790

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "<a href="http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226 " target="_hplink">a free white person</a>" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.

  • The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868

    A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the <a href="http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr140 " target="_hplink">Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011</a> to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h140/text " target="_hplink">bill's text</a>, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/26/nathan-deal-georgia-lawma_n_207485.html " target="_hplink">introduced</a> a similar <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1868/show" target="_hplink">bill</a> in 2009.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1870

    The Naturalization Act of 1870<a href="http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/pages/chronology.htm " target="_hplink"> explicitly extended</a> naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.

  • The Page Act of 1875

    Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the <a href="http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/pageact.html " target="_hplink">Page Act</a> severely <a href="http://immigration-online.org/228-page-act-united-states-1875.html " target="_hplink">restricted</a> the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882

    Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the <a href="http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/seven/chinxact.htm " target="_hplink">Chinese Exclusion Act</a> was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court <a href="http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html " target="_hplink">decision</a> in <em>United States v. Wong Kim Ark</em> finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line <em>somewhere</em>, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia Commons</a>).

  • The Naturalization Act of 1906

    The Naturalization Act of 1906 further <a href="http://www.understandingrace.org/history/gov/eastern_southern_immigration.html" target="_hplink">defined</a> the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a <a href="http://www.enotes.com/topic/Naturalization_Act_of_1906" target="_hplink">requisite</a> for immigrants to adjust their status.

  • The Immigration Act of 1924

    U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct " target="_hplink">bill</a> into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/6306315902/" target="_hplink">NYCMarines</a>.

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)

    The <a href="https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:zwaVG82lZisJ:www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/polsciwb/brianl/docs/1952McCarranWaltersAct.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjEwx76FIBTixZAfyncZz-1CSuSeciv5qB6vvWTrUfW58XRpXq8zkpnI57XSuuG5Bu-WSySGbEhxYvZxP7y6qDQuOsDhgDa6qUqUaJ8F4imTzKJsVtppHc_-eew2dK6vGhoIUZs&sig=AHIEtbTNQ5GFiNMVS-xyThq8VVSj_gG9KA " target="_hplink">McCarran-Walter Act</a> kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/ImmigrationAct" target="_hplink">formally</a> ended Asian exclusion.

  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

    When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html" target="_hplink">abolished</a> the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.

  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

    The 1996 <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/PUBLAW/HTML/PUBLAW/0-0-0-10948.html " target="_hplink">Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act</a> (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1996_illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigrant_responsibility_act.html " target="_hplink">defined</a> an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.