Undocumented youths 15 to 30 years old certainly can't vote. But they are a large group -- estimated at 800,000 to 1.7 million -- that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney doesn't think he can write off completely.
Why? Conventional wisdom has it that Romney, to win, needs to peel off Latino votes from President Obama in key swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. Some Latino voters were once undocumented themselves, or know someone who was or is. They also tend to support the decade-old federal DREAM Act proposal -- or something like it that would give youths a chance to earn full legal immigrant status, which isn't possible within the current immigration system.
Over the weekend, former GOP Florida Gov. Jeb Bush warned his party that it had to get with the nation's changing demographics and heed the Latino vote -- or get left behind.
As Romney's campaign prepares for the sprint to the finish, the GOP standard-bearer might consider the 2010 California gubernatorial campaign of Meg Whitman, a Romney supporter. In a blitz of Spanish-language TV and radio ads, Whitman simultaneously tried to woo Latino moms and dads by praising Latino schoolchildren as "the future," while attacking illegal immigrants as a burden and opposing legalization for youths or adults.
That didn't work.
Romney has repeatedly said he would veto the DREAM Act, which once had prominent GOP supporters. The act would allow certain youths to earn a green card, or legal permanent residency, by attending college or serving in the military. (Legal permanent residency is a prerequisite step to apply for citizenship.) Romney has also attacked a program that President Obama began this month to allow some undocumented youths who arrived before age 16 and who are not older than 30 to apply for both work permits and a two-year protection from deportation. Obama called it a "stop gap" measure only, and said that he'd sign the DREAM Act if Congress were to pass it.
Romney has pushed a "self-deportation" line as a solution to oust illegal immigrants, but has echoed President Obama in expressing sympathy for young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States "through no fault of their own." So far, though, Romney hasn't offered specifics on what he might do for those young immigrants, if not the Dream Act. And he has dodged questions on whether he would cancel or continue Obama's new two-year program if he's elected.
Florida Sen. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and Romney "surrogate," tried to step into that void this summer when he said he was developing an alternative to the DREAM Act that could be put before Congress.
To curb criticism from the right, Rubio said his idea wouldn't open a path to citizenship for youths. His program would only provide extended temporary legal status, he said. That stance drew attacks from critics who said Rubio's proposal would create a "permanent underclass." Rubio denied that, claiming that once youths had temporary legal status, they could rely on the existing immigration system to ultimately seek green cards. But Rubio has failed to explain how that's possible given the limits of the current system and its obstacles, as explained in this Center for Public Integrity piece.
On the eve of the GOP convention, Romney's balancing act on undocumented youths got even more complicated.
Last Thursday, one of Romney's informal immigration advisers, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, filed a lawsuit against Obama's new program on behalf of 10 immigration agents. The suit challenges Obama's right to allow undocumented "childhood arrivals" to apply for temporary relief from deportation.
Kobach has earned a reputation as an architect of tough state immigration laws, such as Arizona's "show me your papers" law, and legal challenges to policies that allow certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition for state college. Last week, Kobach pressed the GOP convention to keep hard-line planks on immigration.
Kobach's latest suit against Obama's program is funded by Numbers USA, a Washington, D.C.-based population-control group that has long opposed efforts to pass the DREAM Act.
In 2007, Numbers USA executive director Roy Beck explained his limited sympathy for these youths: "I have no trouble looking at them in the eye, and saying, 'Too bad. Life is hard.' "
The Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles called Kobach's suit "the equivalent of seventeenth-century witch-hunting."
Pushed to respond to Kobach's suit, a Romney spokesman issued a carefully worded response, as reported by The Hill. These youths deserve "clarity about their long-term status," the Romney spokesman said, and Obama's action only makes it harder to pursue a bipartisan proposal that would offer young illegal immigrants some relief.
Two years ago, in California, a similar balancing act blew up in Meg Whitman's face during a debate in heavily Latino Fresno that was sponsored by Univision, the Spanish-language TV giant. Fresno is a farm region where agribusiness groups, a strong GOP constituency, had taken a lead in efforts to try to get Congress to legalize their mostly Latino immigrant workforce -- and their families -- during the presidency of George W. Bush.
When a young woman rose and told Whitman and Democratic candidate Jerry Brown that she was about to graduate with honors but was undocumented, Whitman's response left the audience cold. She told the student she didn't think undocumented students should be allowed into a state college, nor did she support the federal DREAM Act. Labor unions paid for TV ads in Spanish calling Whitman "a two-faced woman."
Whitman lost in California, for various reasons, including the Latino vote, which is about one-fifth of the state's electorate. Polls showed that between 64 and 80 percent of California's Latino voters voted Democrat in 2010.
Last Friday, Univision announced that Obama and Romney had agreed to appear in separate forums and answer questions from the audience. Look for what Romney says when he's pressed, again, to explain his position on undocumented youths.