I hear the advice from the pundits over and over again: Mitt Romney needs to appeal to Hispanic voters. Therefore, he should stop talking about illegal immigration. The premise is that Hispanic voters favor high levels of illegal immigration and will not vote for a candidate who wants to end it. But what empirical evidence is there for this assumption? In the surveys I have seen Hispanics rate immigration as a minor issue. And that does mean that those who care about it want more illegal immigration. So the premise that downplaying tough talk about cracking down on illegal immigration leads to Hispanic votes just does not hold up.
Romney has been campaigning fairly aggressively against illegal immigration. He has repeatedly said he favors deportation of all undocumented immigrants in the country, mandatory use of e-verify by all employers, and opposes the so-called Dream Act. Newt Gingrich accused him of being "anti-immigrant," which Romney vehemently denied. Yet Romney won the Hispanic vote in the Florida Republican primary 54%-29% (Fox News exit poll). Hispanics also constituted a significant 14% of the voters in the primary. This tells us two important things: Hispanic voters are slightly more pro-Romney than the electorate, and they are not repelled by the idea of cracking down on illegal immigrants.
And their 14% share of the Republican primary electorate is almost equal to their share of the state's population.
There is a significant share of the Hispanic population in Florida (many are Cubans who have always voted Republican) that is conservative and Republican. It's simply wrong to say those people are offended by talk of cracking down on illegal immigration. Could it be that they are opposed to illegal immigration in principle, and this is is something that is appealing about the Republican brand?
If Gingrich had won the Hispanic vote, and it was therefore out of step with the rest of the state's electorate, there would be reason to question whether opposition to illegal immigration were an impediment to winning over Hispanic voters. But that was not what happened. And it is now fair to ask why Republicans should not make illegal immigration a key issue. It would seem every segment of the Republican electorate is on board.