Soledad O'Brien: Voting For Immigration Reform

The lightning-rod issue—and what politicians plan to do about it—is a major concern for Latinos, regardless of their own residency status.

The sun struggles against the thick fog rolling in from the ocean as I go to air in Jacksonville, Fla. It’s the day after a Republican debate, and I am having breakfast at a beachside diner with political pundits on my CNN morning show, Starting Point. We’re discussing the critical role Latino voters will play in the Florida GOP primary.

“Could it make or break the race?” I ask, turning the panel’s attention to Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, joining us via satellite. Our conversation quickly unfurls into a fog of its own as we end up talking about immigration.

Ros-Lehtinen tries hard to get us back on message. “It’s an important concern, but it’s the jobless numbers that are going high and higher here in South Florida,” she says. But there is no escaping this fog. Illegal immigration has become a barometer for how Latinos will vote in this presidential election.

In a poll conducted by impreMedia/Latino Decisions (the nation’s largest chain of Spanish-language newspapers), 46 percent of Latinos believe Republicans “don’t care too much” about them and 27 percent said Republicans “are being hostile.” At the same time, President Obama, who won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, broke records by deporting 1.2 million illegal immigrants during his first term in office. A study by Pew Hispanic Center found that one in two U.S. Latinos disapproves of his immigration policies.

One thing is clear: The estimated 20 million Latino voters have the potential to influence the 2012 race. Latinos are a significant voting population not only in Florida, but in other swing states like Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, and are adding to the over-18 population at a rate of 50,000 a month. Mitt Romney won the Florida primary even while opposing the DREAM Act and other immigration reforms. But registration for that primary had mixed news for his party. There are 1,473,920 Latinos registered in Florida—13.1 percent of the state’s population—but the number of Democrats (664,513) has surpassed that of Republicans (452,619) as more Puerto Ricans have entered the state.

An interesting case study on how immigration might influence the election is Nevada, where I’m producing a documentary on the Latino voter, set to air in the fall. Latinos are a quarter of Nevada’s population, and 224,000 of them are eligible to vote this fall. We are following an 18-year-old named Debbie Rios, who is organizing students at Rancho High School in North Las Vegas.

When Ros-Lehtinen was pushing us to get back to the economy, she was referring to Latinos like Debbie’s family. Debbie’s father was laid off from construction work and her mother is struggling to find housekeeping jobs. Yet while the economy rates as the top issue for Latinos, it is immigration that drives Debbie, a U.S. citizen whose parents emigrated from Guatemala. She has persuaded them to file for citizenship so they can vote and is going door-to-door for Latino candidates, lobbying for passage of the DREAM Act, which many of her school friends need to fulfill their own college dreams.

While immigration has cemented Debbie’s commitment to the Democrats, it has motivated Robert Zavala to become more engaged with Republicans. A conservative Nicaraguan American who became a citizen because of immigration reform instituted under Ronald Reagan, he is trying to build an advocacy group aiming to tone down his party’s rhetoric on immigration.

I anchored CNN coverage of the GOP primary in Nevada. It was the first state where the makeup of the Latino population reflected the dominance of Latinos with Central American roots. While the number of Latinos attending Republican caucuses was already small, this year they turned out at even lower rates than in 2008. Robert did his share to engage in the primary, attending a Romney rally with his mother. He was happy with what Romney had to say, but one thing worried him: He didn’t see many Latinos in the room.

Soledad O’Brien’s new morning show, Starting Point, airs 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. EST on CNN.