Immigration and Cuba test Republican strength in Florida's rapidly changing Latino demographic

01/31/12 Kelly Benjamin
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Even though polls show Mitt Romney with a wide lead in today’s primary, some Republicans are concerned about recent attacks made by rival Newt Gingrich that labeled Romney as "anti-immigrant." That term could potentially damage Romney during the general election in Florida, where 13% of voters are Latino.

Last week, the issue of immigration shot to central stage in the Florida primary race when Newt Gingrich abruptly pulled a Spanish language campaign spot that described Mitt Romney as “anti-immigrant". The ad drew a quick response from US Senator Marco Rubio who called it inaccurate and inflammatory. The Gingrich campaign removed the ad. All of this highlights what a delicate issue immigration is in Florida as compared to states like Iowa or South Carolina where the GOP candidates had no problem taking a hardline stance. Florida political commentator and blogger Peter Schorsch says that the immigration issue could be the Achilles' heel of the Republican Party this election.

"They don’t know where they’re at on this issue because number one, you can just do the math; we know how important the Hispanic vote counts. When we say the things that people in the Republican Party say you lose votes. They got to take this pro-Cuban and anti-Castro stance but then they have to tie that back in with their tea-party influence stance and anti-immigrant stance. They were literally changing their position on immigration, or having to walk back their position on immigration, or having to clarify they’re position on immigration.”

Juan Rodriquez, a youth organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition contends this flip-flopping on immigration has only solidified the significance of the Hispanic vote in the upcoming Presidential election.

"We don’t understand exactly what’s going on, the community has just been going out saying that they’ve had enough with the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Latinos and immigrants across this country have been crucial to prosperity of different economic systems in agriculture, the service industry, and tourism. We’re doing everything we can to provide a fair and equal future for the young people who are growing up in these states, trying to get an equal chance.”

Rodriguez says he finds it troubling that candidates like Mitt Romney have threatened to veto the Dream Act, a bill that would provide a path to US citizenship for people who immigrated as children if they complete a college degree or serve in the military.

“The Dream Act has always been across the board a common sense solution to a gap that we have in our immigration system that needs to be addressed. In terms of the candidates, one of the major criticisms that our community members have been raising is the way they keep trying to strip down the Dream Act, take away so many provisions that would provide opportunities and provide hope to young people and they’re futures. Even when they try to sound moderate they’re talking mainly about putting young people into the military and that being they’re only option for legalization.”

Besides immigration, another issue that Republicans may find themselves in hot water over in Florida is Cuba. While the hardline cold war rhetoric on Cuba has been safe for Republicans in Florida in the past, University of South Florida professor Maura Barrios says a new generation of Cuban-Americans has a much different view.

“Actually Cuban Americans in Florida have changed quite a bit. They’re shifting opinions on the embargo by Cubans in the Miami area. So there is this disconnect with the reality of today and the old rhetoric of the cold war rhetoric. The young Cuban Americans who are going to vote, they’re thinking is very different than the old timers.”

Twenty six year old Guido Maniscalco is one of those first generation Cuban-Americans who thinks very differently than the old timers. While the young Republican says he supports much of his party's platform, he sees the continued embargo on Cuba as a mistake.

"The embargo to me is a failure because what have we essentially done? Castro is still in power. His brother is now in power. They’re not going to live forever, they’re up in age, my grandma is up in age and a lot of people from that generation have passes away. Me being a first generation American, my mother being born in Cuba but coming here as a young girl, we look at it as if we were to open talks and discuss trade with Cuba. I think it would only benefit promoting democracy."

Today's primary election provides Republicans their first test of support among the rapidly evolving Latino demographic. The Hispanic vote nationwide is expected to account for as much as 10% in November's General election.

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