Most politicians in Florida are keeping a safe distance from the explosive issue of immigration this year, but the ongoing national debate could make a crucial difference in the campaigns for governor and several close congressional races.
For many voters, especially in the tea-party movement, uncontrolled immigration is a big part of Florida’s economic troubles and one reason to vote for Republican Rick Scott for governor.
For many immigrants and Hispanic leaders, proposed legislation to give unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship is a rallying cry to turn out the vote for Democrats, including Alex Sink for governor.
Though not discussed much on the campaign trail leading to the Nov. 2 elections, the issue forms a backdrop to the competition for Hispanics, who represent about 13 percent of the state’s registered voters.
Scott, U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio and some fellow Republicans are trying to take a tough stance on illegal immigration while not alienating their traditional Cuban-American support. Democrats — including Senate candidate Kendrick Meek and Sink — hope to spark a big turnout by Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in South and Central Florida.
Reform targeting illegal immigrants would not directly affect Puerto Ricans, who are citizens, or Cubans, who are granted legal status when they arrive in this country. But polls have shown that both groups generally support an overhaul of immigration law.
The proposed reform, backed by President Barack Obama and likely to come before Congress next year, would impose stronger enforcement measures to stem illegal migrations while providing legal status to millions of unauthorized residents nationwide, potentially including an estimated 675,000 in Florida.
A tough new Arizona law — which requires police to question people suspected of being in the country illegally — has stirred even more controversy over whether to impose such a policy in Florida.
“There are signs that Hispanics and others who support immigration reform are not likely to show up to vote because they are demoralized and unhappy by positions taken by both parties,” said George Gonzalez, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “If so, groups mobilized by anti-immigration ideas could have an amplified impact.”
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, launched Spanish-language TV ads last week, flaunting his family’s success story. “They made many sacrifices so I could live the American dream,” he tells viewers.
Rubio contends that English should be designated the official language. He has discounted immigration reform as an “amnesty” that would attract more illegal arrivals. And he has sharply criticized the U.S. Justice Department for challenging the Arizona law — but stopped short of endorsing it for Florida.
Meek hopes to draw immigrant voters and Hispanics because of his long-standing support for comprehensive immigration reform and attempts to prevent the deportation of Haitians.
Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent candidate for the Senate, also supports reform that provides “an earned path to citizenship.” He and Meek oppose an Arizona-style law for Florida.
But Hispanic voters aren’t monolithic. Polls show Rubio has gained the overwhelming support of fellow Cuban-American voters, even those who oppose his position on immigration.
“He seems to have a message of limited government. That’s pretty much what we need right now. We are spending too much money,” said Elias Seife, 47, a computer programmer in Miami and the son of Cuban immigrants.
“If he [Rubio] weren’t running for election, he still would be against illegal immigration, but maybe he wouldn’t be as drastic as he sounds,” Seife said. “He’s just taking it a little further to appease more frustrated people in the Republican Party on that issue.”
Dario Moreno — a Miami pollster who surveys Hispanic voters for private clients — said he has found a growing gap this year between Cubans, who are inclined to vote Republican, and non-Cuban Hispanics, who are inclined to vote for Democrats.
“As we enter the last four weeks of the election, the challenge for Democrats is to attract Cuban voters,” Moreno said. “That’s very important in the governor’s race, where Scott has not been able to nail down the Cuban vote. It’s a question of whether Alex Sink can take advantage of that.
“For Marco Rubio,” Moreno said, “the question is: Why isn’t he appealing to the Hispanic community beyond his Cuban base?”
A Mason-Dixon poll released this week found that 70 percent of the Hispanics surveyed favored Rubio in the Senate race. In the race for governor, Scott led Sink among Hispanics by 45 percent to 38 percent, with 15 percent undecided. But the poll had a small sample of only 82 Hispanics.
A nationwide poll by Latino Decisions, an independent polling firm, found that 58 percent of Hispanic voters favored Democrats in congressional races this year while 19 percent favored Republicans.
“Over the last two weeks, the Democrats are slowly starting to recover some ground that they have lost to unenthusiastic voters,” said Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions.
Sink and fellow Democrats could benefit from an outpouring of non-Cuban Hispanics, but they have not turned immigration reform into a campaign theme.
Sink calls for a crackdown on employers who hire illegal arrivals. Unlike Scott, however, she opposes bringing an Arizona-style law to Florida.
Emilio Sosa, 38, a Guatemalan immigrant and independent voter in St. Petersburg, said some practical method should be found to resolve the legal status of current residents. “I don’t believe in just letting anyone into the country,” he said, “but I don’t believe in putting up a wall that stretches from Texas to California.”
Sosa supports Sink but not because of the immigration issue. “It is a factor,” he said, “but the economy is more important.”
Tea party pitch
Unlike most other candidates, Republican Allen West has made immigration a frequent theme in his race against U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.
“You must be well-informed and well-armed, because this government we have right now is a tyrannical government. And it starts with illegal immigration,” West, who is backed by the tea party movement, told a protest crowd in May outside a day-labor center in Jupiter.
“We cannot allow them to come here and depress our wages,” West contends.
Klein opposes the Arizona law but wants to boost security on the borders and crack down on employers that hire illegal immigrants.
Other Democrats who face tough re-election campaigns — including U.S. Reps. Suzanne Kosmas of New Smyrna Beach and Alan Grayson of Orlando — have taken similar positions but do not dwell on the issue. Nor, thus far, have their Republican rivals.
Scott made an Arizona-style law a central issue in his primary campaign, but he too has largely ignored it during the general-election campaign.
Scott last week was endorsed by three Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami: Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Each opposes Scott’s views on immigration but supports his stance on jobs and the economy.
Late shifts among Hispanic voters and turnout will determine the outcome of the close races, pollster Moreno predicted. He expects Cuban-Americans to vote in large numbers and a lower turnout from other Hispanics, which would generally help Republican candidates.
“But the campaigns could change that,” he said. “The Hispanic vote is still in play.”