What Issues Really Matter To Latinos?

A recent Gallup poll shows immigration lags behind other issues among Latino voters. But immigration has dominated recent headlines and both President Obama and Mitt Romney are fighting to garner Latino support. Guest host Viviana Hurtado speaks with Kristian Ramos of a Democratic-leaning think tank, and the National Review's Mario Loyola.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a recent survey shows finances are the most common source of conflict for U.S. couples. We talked to one of our regular money coaches to help you and your significant other maybe avoid an argument before it starts.

But first, Monday's Supreme Court decision on Arizona's controversial immigration law is the latest in a string of news affecting Latinos in America. Both President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney have been making their pitches to Hispanics. This was from last week's meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF NALEO CONFERENCE)

MITT ROMNEY: Immigration reform is not just a moral imperative; it's also an economic necessity. Immigrants with advanced degrees start companies, create jobs and they drive innovation at a very high rate.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On Friday we announced that we're lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. We should have passed the DREAM Act a long time ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

OBAMA: It was written by members of both parties. When it came up for a vote a year and a half ago, Republicans in Congress blocked it.

HURTADO: Latinos voted at a lower rate than both African-Americans and whites in 2008, and we want to know if either side is doing enough to mobilize Latino voters this November. So I'm joined now by Kristian Ramos. He's the policy director for the 21st Century Border Initiative at the NDN. That's a Democratic-leaning think tank here in Washington, D.C. And he joins us in our Washington studio.

Also joining us is Mario Loyola, contributor to the National Review and director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He joins us from Austin, Texas. Kristian, Mario, thanks for joining me.

KRISTIAN RAMOS: Great to be with you.

MARIO LOYOLA: Glad to be here today.

And so, you know, in the last two weeks immigration has become headline news. Now, with President Obama's decision for dreamers on Monday and dreamers - when we talk about dreamers, we're referring to those undocumented or illegal immigrant students, who are college or those who are military-bound.

HURTADO: And now we're talking about Monday's Supreme Court decision over Arizona's aggressive immigration laws. It's become now a major talking point, it wasn't a couple of weeks ago. So, Kristian, let's talk about some polls. A new Gallup poll says that this is at best a top three issue for Hispanics in America, you know, with economic issues, jobs. Those are still out-polling immigration.

So is immigration, as far as it relates to Latino voters, is it being overblown?

RAMOS: I don't know that it's being overblown. The real thing that the immigration stance here shows is a willingness to lead, number one, by the president and number two, it sort of kind of underscores and highlights some of the character issues that you see with Mitt Romney, in the sense that, look, the president went out there.

He had bold leadership with this deferred action for deportations of the DREAM Act. And it's critically important to the Hispanic community. It's an emotional issue for Hispanics. It's an emotional issue for a lot of voters. Health care and the economy are also critically important to this community. I think both candidates have to speak more to all the broad range of issues.

HURTADO: And Mario, I want to give you an opportunity to respond to the immigration question because, as Kristian brings up, it is an emotional issue but, again, the economy seems to be an area where Hispanics are incredibly concerned, which is reflective with the general population.

And the recent Gallup poll, 19 percent of registered Hispanic voters said they were worried about unemployment and economic growth came in at 17 percent. That is above immigration policies that polled at 12 percent. Is there an opening here, Mario, for Mitt Romney to get his message across and connect, resonate, with Latino voters?

LOYOLA: Yeah. And the federal budget deficit, actually, for the group of Hispanic registered voters came in as important as the issue of immigration. Look, I think that there is an opportunity for Romney as long as he can keep the focus on the economy. The president can't run on his economic performance.

Maybe he can convince Americans that our economic woes are somebody else's fault, but he certainly can't claim a lot of credit for economic performance over the last several years. Conversely, immigration is an issue that hurts the Republicans. Right now, the Republican Party has a very serious image problem among Hispanics, which is, you know, the image that they're culturally anti-immigrant.

But if you can get over that barrier the way that, for example, President George W. Bush started to do and did demonstrably well in the 2004 election, in which Hispanic support for Republicans increased by 25 percent over previous numbers. Then you've got a real opportunity.

HURTADO: Mario, let's actually develop this a little bit. You were talking about how it is that the president can't show leadership on the economy and we were just saying that this new Gallup poll confirms latest polling about the economy being important for Hispanic voters and yet Mitt Romney continues to lag behind President Obama at 41 percent of registered Hispanic voters.

So what's this disconnect between Romney campaigning as the economic fixer and people's perception?

LOYOLA: Well, I think the general election has just been engaged and is just starting to be framed as a race between Obama and Romney. So we've got to let that coalesce a little bit. I think the important number to look at right now traditionally at this point in the campaign, six months before the election, a year before the election, the important number is the president's overall approval rating which has consistently been under 50 percent. And that's what gives the president and his advisors a lot to worry about.

HURTADO: Kristian, I just saw you saying absolutely no, you know, gesturing with your head no.

RAMOS: Well, I think the real issue here is - I'll tell you exactly why Hispanics are wary of Mitt Romney. On the issues that are important to them - on the economy, on jobs, Mitt Romney has come out very clearly and said, you know, where he wants to make his cuts, how he wants to balance the budget. He's tied himself to the Paul Ryan plan which is, hey, let's cut funding to public schools. Let's cut funding for teachers. Let's cut funding for police officers and firefighters and the middle class. Mitt Romney's sole campaign thing that resonates within his base is going after the Affordable Care Act, the health care act. He wants to do away with it completely. The Affordable Care Act is incredibly popular to the Hispanic community. People don't realize Hispanics are the most uninsured population in the country.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. I'm joined today by Mario Loyola, contributor to the National Review and director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Also joining me is Kristian Ramos. He's a policy director for the center-left think tank NDN. They're talking to me about what it's going to take to mobilize Latinos to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Mario, we know that the Gallup poll says that immigration isn't the top issue for Hispanic voters but with the recent news - and we're talking about the White House deportation of dreamers pause button that was hit a couple of weeks ago as well as SB 1070, the Supreme Court ruling this week. Is this going to be enough, Mario, to mobilize Latinos to register to vote? And then - this is as important - show up in November?

LOYOLA: Well, from the Democrats' point of view, they certainly hope so. The president recognizes that they have to keep the issue on immigration rather than the economy, for example, because the immigration issue is very divisive for Republicans. It's the major image problem that the Republicans have among the Hispanic community, is because of immigration policies and the very divisive immigration debate of 2006.

And so, that's why the president waited until now to do something that he could've done three years ago, which was to announce this policy refusing to unconstitutionally, by the way, according to many - refusing to deport the dreamers population. But the Democrats still have something to worry about, even if they keep the focus on immigration, however, because the depth of feeling among the Hispanic community is more in line with previous elections. It's not as strong as it was in 2008. And so, the question is even if Romney trails the president by 40 percent among Hispanics, are they going to come out and vote?

HURTADO: And I think that is the question, actually. Kristian...

RAMOS: Look, the reality is that there is enthusiasm for the president, I think, after his move to defer deportation for dreamers, but the other thing you really have to look at is- in 2008, we keep making this comparison - the other thing that you guys have failed to mention is in terms of a ground game.

To get out the Hispanic vote, you have to have people on the ground. You have to have a field team. You have to have people knocking on the doors talking to your abuela. In 2008, I was out there in Colorado and the thing that I saw was John McCain did not have a ground game for the Hispanic community and Mitt Romney has even less of a ground game out there.

So - yeah. I don't know that you can really say that the Hispanic vote is not going to be out in force because people are working towards making sure that happens.

HURTADO: Very quickly, Mario, what is the Romney's campaign's strategy?

LOYOLA: The Romney campaign has a challenge to get the issue away from laws like SB 1070, which offend the Latino community as a whole, and onto laws like Arizona's E-Verify program, which focused on employment verification. It doesn't scare anybody. It makes it hard for illegal immigrants to take jobs away from legal immigrants. Right? And it addresses the real economic incentive to illegal immigration.

If the Romney campaign is successful in making that focus and making that argument on economics, economic opportunity for legal immigrants and then tradition family values and all that, he may find a more natural constituency than some people think.

HURTADO: And, as far as voter enthusiasm is concerned, health care, we know is incredibly important to the Latino community. Certainly, we talked about it here. We have a very big Supreme Court decision that we're expecting tomorrow. How does tomorrow's Supreme Court decision on the president's Affordable Care Act - how does this affect voter enthusiasm that we've been talking about, if it does?

LOYOLA: I don't think that it will necessarily affect voter enthusiasm because the consequences of the decision won't start to happen in the marketplace or be felt by working families across the country until next year and the year after.

RAMOS: I actually think, in this case, it really hurts Mitt Romney either way. Again, he has an enthusiasm gap with his base of just general voters and the real problem for him is he wrote the original version of it. It's the only thing that he can talk about on the stump with Republican voters. If it's repealed, he has nothing to talk about, really, and even if this thing gets knocked out, you know, the Obama administration can do some fixes to it and it'll come back in a different version. And it hurts Romney in the Hispanic community, as well, in terms of voter enthusiasm because he so clearly wants to repeal it.

HURTADO: That was Kristian Ramos. He's a director of public policy at the 21st Century Border Initiative at NDN, a democratic-leaning think tank, and Mario Loyola. He's a contributor for the National Review and a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Thank you both for joining me.

LOYOLA: Great to be with you.

RAMOS: Glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HURTADO: Coming up, after Beth Howard's husband died, she turned to pies to make her life and everyone else's a little sweeter.

BETH HOWARD: Bring this really hearty, yummy looking thing to a dinner party and you'll see for yourself how the world can be a better place. People light up when you bring them a homemade pie.

HURTADO: Beth Howard talks about her book, "Making Peace: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie." That's in a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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