In Just 2 Weeks, Immigration Became the Big Issue

PHOTO: People visit the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.PlayJacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
WATCH Supreme Court Rules on Arizona Immigration Law

For the past two years, immigration as a political issue was rarely given front-page treatment. But in the past two weeks, President Obama and the Supreme Court have served up a one-two punch that has not only launched immigration to the fore, but given Hispanic voters renewed reason to vote on Election Day.

Even as the high court struck down key parts of a hotly debated Arizona law, immigration reform advocates warned of the danger in setting a precedent of upholding a provision that lets police officers check the immigration status of anyone they stop.

"Oftentimes it's someone who's brown, speaks another language or has an accent, so that's a clear indication that it's likely a Latino person or perhaps an Asian person, basically people of color," said Jessica González-Rojas, the head of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. "For the Latino community, they know that they're seeing their people being stigmatized, being blamed, being treated as second-class citizens, and dehumanized."

Immigration is one issue that Obama and Mitt Romney differ on, but it's unclear where -- because Romney won't say whether he supports the Arizona law. As the court passed down its decision on Monday and it was dissected, Romney offered only a vague statement about states' rights, and a spokesman repeatedly refused to answer reporters' questions on whether Romney supported it.

The ambiguity reflects the path that Romney has walked toward the nomination. In the GOP primary, Romney adopted a more conservative stance on illegal immigration, but as he now seeks votes from independents, Romney is less eager to hammer the nationalistic chords.

Romney, who later told donors that the court's decision created a "muddle," was panned by Democrats for not articulating his position. (Ironically, the Republican National Committee sent an email fixated on the botched gun-tracking operation in Mexico and mocked Obama for saying, "I Will Always Tell You Where I Stand.")

Jennifer Korn, the conservative head of the Hispanic Leadership Network, defended Romney's non statement and said he should continue to push for a larger fix to illegal immigration rather than commenting on state issues.

"They're trying to give him bait," Korn said of Democrats. "To me, it's just a trap. They're trying to make him fumble on it or something. I think what he said on it is just fine."

Many Hispanics celebrated Obama's recent announcement that he would no longer formally deport illegal immigrants who were brought to the country at a young age and have since not broken the law. Republicans were quick to paint the announcement as a political play for the Hispanic vote so close to an election.

Then, on Monday, the Supreme Court galvanized Hispanics again, ruling that police officers in Arizona will be allowed to ask any person they stop for proof of citizenship. Critics of that controversial state law, known as SB 1070, have said it amounts to racial profiling.

Politicians from around the spectrum were writing reactions to the ruling. Rick Santorum and Rick Perry released statements, as if the Republican primary hadn't ended long ago.

Advocates for immigrants say many Hispanics in Arizona have lived in fear of the police since SB 1070 was passed two years ago, and that the part of the law that was upheld threatens to tear families apart.

And although the law clearly targets Latinos with roots across the southern border, minorities of all colors stand to identify with the undocumented immigrants in the crosshairs. Miriam Yeung, the head of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, said minority communities are "wrapped to these discussions and conversations" and that "it is a motivator for us at the polls."

"I think we're living in really tense times about what it means to be here, how we navigate difficulty and how welcome or not welcome our families are," she said. "The volume does get way turned up at this point."

At the same time, a perhaps unsurprising USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday reported that Hispanics care just as much about immigration as they do health care and unemployment. In the survey of Hispanics, those three issues got 20 percent of the tally when they were asked to choose the issue most important to them. Obama has a commanding lead over Romney among Hispanics nationally, though the campaigns are more focused on the Latino vote in swing states like Florida and Nevada.