By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
(CNN) - If there was still any doubt about Mitt Romney’s position on immigration, it was erased last Thursday during the CNN Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona.
The former Michigan governor referred to Arizona’s controversial HB1070 law as “a model” for the nation. The initiative approved in 2010 that cracks down on illegal immigration has been denounced by Hispanic and immigration rights groups as extreme.
Romney also said that “the right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona … I’ll also complete the (border) fence. I’ll make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence and I’ll make sure we have an (employment eligibility federal database) E-Verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers.”
Hispanic voters won’t decide Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan, because few are registered as Republicans in those states; but it will be an entirely different story during the November presidential elections.
Arizona’s Hispanic voters could give the candidate of either party enough of a margin to win the state in November. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Arizona has 766,000 eligible Hispanic voters, close to 20% of all eligible voters in the Grand Canyon state.
Making statements that can be perceived as anti-immigrant is risky, according to Jennifer Sevilla-Korn, the executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a center-right advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
"Tone and rhetoric absolutely matter, because the use of language that can be perceived as inflammatory turns the Hispanic community off even if they agree with the candidate on other issues like how to deal with the economy and fiscal responsibility," Sevilla-Korn said.
Mark Lopez, associate director at the Pew Hispanic Center, said, “Latinos have played a growing and important role in the nation’s presidential elections over the last few election cycles. There are now more than 21 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote, and Latinos reside in some key states.”
According to the U.S. Census, in the 2008 presidential election, Latinos represented 13% of all voters in Colorado, 14% in Nevada, 15% in Florida, and 38% in New Mexico. Those four states will likely be swing states again in 2012. “Even the participation rate among Hispanics in presidential elections has been growing” in those states, says Lopez.
In 2004, former President George W. Bush won more than 40% of the Latino vote. Four years later, 67% of Hispanic voters went for Barack Obama. Experts say anybody getting that kind of support from Latinos next year, whether Democrat or Republican, has a good chance of winning the presidency.
Florida-based political analyst Charles Garcia says he’s confident Latino voters will decide the U.S. presidential election in 2012. He points to states like North Carolina, where the number of registered Hispanic voters has almost doubled to more than 130,000 since the last presidential election.
"President Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by 14,000 votes," Garcia said. "In 2008 there were 68,000 registered Latino voters and a whopping 84% of them participated in the election."
According to research done by the CNN Political Team, based on U.S. Census figures there will be 15 swing states in the 2012 presidential elections: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In a tight race, Garcia said, Hispanic voters could be the margin of victory in 12 of the 15 swing states. The reason? The number of eligible Latino voters in those states has grown by more than 700,000 in the last four years.
"So the important message for the Latino community that’s living in one of these 15 swing states is ‘Get off your couch and go register to vote because you’re going to determine the next election’ - and that’s powerful," Garcia said.
On the Democratic side, Garcia points out, President Obama hasn’t delivered on a promise he made while campaigning: comprehensive immigration reform.
"What he’s done is he has deported 400,000 immigrants a year - a total of 1.2 million so far - and he hasn’t delivered on the Dream Act," Garcia said. The Dream Act is a bill that would give a path towards citizenship to undocumented young people attending college or serving in the armed forces.
As the GOP primaries play out and as the focus shifts toward the general election in November, Latino voters likely will find themselves more and more the focus of candidates’ attention in those key swing states. Which candidate will get those voters’ attention in the polling booth is a question that will be answered in the weeks and months ahead.