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How Romney could win Hispanic vote

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney stands U.S.-Mexico border fence 2007 San Diego Calif.  |  Lenny Ignelzi~AP

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney stands at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in 2007 in San Diego, Calif. | Lenny Ignelzi~AP

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Updated: May 23, 2012 8:18AM

If Mitt Romney is to have any chance of beating President Barack Obama in November, he must win a larger share of the Hispanic vote than the polls suggest he will.

And he won’t unless he solves his immigration problem.

It’s a problem of his own making. He decided that beating up on illegal immigrants would boost his popularity among those suspicious that he was really a moderate Republican. In doing so, he injected an issue into the campaign that had largely fizzled — and for good reason. Illegal immigration is down to historical lows.

Romney has plenty of advisers trying to figure out how to soften his negative image among Hispanic voters. We can expect to see him wolfing down tacos and mumbling a few phrases in Spanish. But neither tactic will do anything but make him look foolish.

What he should do is rid his campaign of the likes of Kris Kobach — the zealot behind several state anti-illegal immigrant laws being challenged in the courts. He needs to speak honestly to the American people about the true state of immigration to the U.S. — legal and illegal. Here’s my suggestion for what he should say:

“My fellow Americans, I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about illegal immigration during the primaries, and I’ve used some pretty tough rhetoric. I’ve suggested that 11 million people who are here illegally — many of whom have lived in this country for decades — should self-deport.

“But when I think about what those words really mean, I’ve come to understand that it would require parents to leave behind their American-born children or else force them to go to a country they’ve never known and whose language they may not even speak. It would separate husband from wife, brother from sister, and lead to family breakdown and instability in many communities.

“It also would shutter many local businesses, not just those that depend on immigrant labor but those where illegal immigrants buy their food, clothes, cars and washing machines. It would deepen the housing crisis as they left behind mortgages that never would be paid and abandoned rental units that would not be filled. Church pews would be emptier, as would federal, state and local tax coffers.

“It’s true that there would be fewer tax dollars expended on educating the children of illegal immigrants or treating them in local emergency rooms. But every careful study that has factored in what illegal immigrants and their adult children ultimately pay in taxes over their life spans and what they take out in services shows a net positive, although a small one.

“So we need to figure out a humane and practical way to deal with this problem — not one that makes a good sound bite but has no chance of success. I am committed to come up with some alternatives. I know that most Americans don’t like the idea of rewarding lawbreakers, so whatever solution we come up with will have to carry heavy penalties for those who’ve broken the law.

“But we also have to realize that the only way to prevent this problem from recurring when the economy starts booming again — as it will on my watch — is to fix our legal immigration laws. Our legal immigration system is broken. The reason so many people have sneaked into the country illegally or remained here after their temporary visas expired is that there are no legal avenues for them to come.

We need to make sure American workers get first crack at jobs — but when they won’t take certain jobs or can’t meet the qualifications for others, employers need legal access to workers who can and will. And we need whatever system we create to be flexible enough to accommodate the business cycle, with visas going up during boom times and down during recessions.

“What I promise, my fellow Americans, is to stop pandering to ideologues and hatemongers and come up with a system that is good for America and Americans and reflects the principles and values that have made this country great.”

If he had the courage to give such a speech, he’d do more than improve his standing with Hispanics. He’d show leadership befitting a president.

Linda Chavez is the author of An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.

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