Sen. Marco Rubio, worried about the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of his party, has proposed a Republican version of the DREAM Act. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Republicans have noticed that they aren’t scoring all that well with Latinos — and before the fastest-growing segment of the electorate slips away from them altogether, they’re trying to recover lost ground.

As the Huffington Post reports, the GOP has launched several outreach efforts. Perhaps the most ambitious is a drive to recruit Latinos to run for Congress as Republicans. The National Republican Congressional Committee has produced a list of 27 non-incumbent Latinos running for Congress in 2012.

A few problems. The Huffington Post spoke to more than half the candidates on the list, and most said they never heard from the NRCC before they announced their run, and many still hadn’t. Two of the candidates said they weren’t Latino, just married to people who are. One candidate is not running as a Republican.

“Still, the Republican Party is making inroads,” reporter Elise Foley wrote for HuffPo. “The six Latinos elected into Congress in 2010 were all Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising star in the party and oft-cited as a potential vice presidential candidate, despite his insistence he will not accept the nomination.

“There are currently 29 Latino members of the House of Representatives, 21 of whom are Democrats. In the Senate, one of the two Latinos is a Republican.”

In the 2008 election, 68 percent of Latino votes went to Barack Obama. Only 31 percent to John McCain. From Republicans’ viewpoint, 2012 looks to be even worse. Obama leads Mitt Romney among Latino registered voters 68 percent to 23 percent, according to a poll last fall from the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

Jobs, education and health care are the biggest issues for Latino voters, the Pew center says, but immigration also rates very highly — and it is on immigration that Republicans most obviously have alienated Latino-Americans, one third of whom told Pew that immigration affects them personally.

Playing to conservative voters, the Republican presidential candidates competed during the primaries to show who could be toughest on immigration. All opposed the DREAM Act, the proposal to grant residency status to children of illegal immigrants who graduate from high school or serve in the military or go to college.

On Sunday, Romney urged that Republicans come up with their own version of the DREAM act.

And Rubio, worried about the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of his party, has done just that.

As the Miami Herald explains it:

Rubio’s proposal allows young people who came to the United States with their parents to have access to a non-immigrant visa that allows them to study, and after their studies are complete, allows them to work legally in the United States. Eventually, Rubio said, they gain the same status of other non-immigrant visa-holders and are eligible to apply for residency. Three to five years after they obtain a green card, they’re eligible for citizenship.

“It’s a non-immigrant visa, so it doesn’t put them on a path in and of itself to residency and then citizenship,” he said. “But it does legalize their status, it wipes out any of these immigration penalties that they might be facing, and it allows them to go on with their lives with some level of certainty.”

Democrats are not impressed. The New York Times editorial board dubbed the Rubio plan “the Dream Act without the dream”:

The only Dream Act worth passing is simple. It tells high schoolers who want to make something of themselves, for the good of the country, to go ahead. Join the military or go to college and take your place as full-fledged citizens in the only country you know. That Republicans reject this shows how far they have strayed from American ideals of assimilation and welcome.

Obama, for his part, is trying to seize the political advantage. He told Univision on Friday that if reelected, he will make immigration reform a priority.

“I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term,” Obama affirmed. “I want to try this year. The challenge we’ve got on immigration reform is very simple. I’ve got a majority of Democrats who are prepared to vote for it, and I’ve got no Republicans who are prepared to vote for it. It’s worse than that. We now have a Republican nominee who said that the Arizona laws are a model for the country; that — and these are laws that potentially would allow someone to be stopped and picked up and asked where their citizenship papers are based on an assumption.”

“Racial profiling,” interjected [interviewer Enrique] Acevedo.

“Very troublesome — and this is something that the Republican nominee has said should be a model for the country,” Obama responded.

In other words, Obama was agreeing that Romney supports racial profiling.