The fallout from the Supreme Court's split decision this week on Arizona's tough immigration law could give GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his party a fresh opportunity to reframe the immigration debate and cut into President Obama's huge lead among Hispanic voters, experts say.
Mr. Romney could seize an opening and reach out to resistant Hispanic voters with a blueprint that upholds the rule of law, boosts the role of states in immigration policy and enforcement, and embraces a new guest-worker program open to current illegal immigrants and future workers alike, they said.
"If Republicans can reach out and work with Hispanics to propose immigration reform that provides widespread economic opportunities without amnesty, then Hispanics might find a new political home," Institute for Policy Innovation scholar Merrill Matthews said in an email to The Washington Times.
The court ruled Monday that states have the right to have their police, in specific circumstances, demand from those they detain evidence of legal presence in the U.S., and then report those they find to the federal government, though the justices rejected Arizona's effort to criminalize illegal immigration at the state level.
And last year, the court upheld another Arizona law that required all businesses to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of job applicants.
Together, those opinions clear the way for Mr. Romney to fashion a state-based approach to enforcing immigration laws that could appeal not only to conservatives, but also the Hispanic and independent voters who could prove crucial in November, said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies.
"Politically, Romney can do many different things," Mr. Camarota said. "He wants to talk about jobs and the economy, so immigration from his point of view is a distraction. But, he could say that the court has affirmed that states can play a role in enforcement."
One option would be for Mr. Romney to say that he will work with Congress and the states to development effective enforcement that would ask the states to be "force multipliers" for the federal government.
As with health care and specifically his own controversial plan adopted in Massachusetts, where he served as governor, Mr. Romney could position himself as a supporter of state flexibility on immigration.
"That allows states to try different solutions," Mr. Matthews said.
He suggested that Mr. Romney's plan should start with a guest-worker program, with immigrants paying a fee to enter to work and being required to report in and to renew their work permit periodically. "A widely available temporary green card program that allows aliens to work and pay taxes would greatly reduce, although not eliminate, the strain on the borders," Mr. Matthews said.
Last week, speaking in Florida to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Mr. Romney outlined a plan that called for cleaning up the legal visa system so businesses can more easily get the workers they need, and families can be unified faster.
Commentators on virtually all sides of the immigration issue agree that the U.S. needs a way for entrepreneurial as well as high- and low-skilled foreign workers to gain temporary work and invest in the U.S.
But the analysts said Mr. Romney should make clear that permission to work is not a ticket to citizenship, nor should it entitle guest workers to government benefits.
"Guest workers should not be able to receive welfare benefits," Mr. Matthews said. "Those with children should be able to enroll them into public schools — they do that now — perhaps with an upfront charge. But they would be paying state and local taxes to help cover those costs. They could also be required to have a very basic health insurance policy to minimize dependence on the health care system."
That leaves the burning question of what to do about illegal immigrants who have been here for many years. The answer, Mr. Matthews said, is not to give them a special path to citizenship.
"There is no political consensus to either deport them or allow those who broke the law by coming here to become citizens," said Mr. Matthews. "Those who have been living in the U.S. illegally for years could enroll in the guest-worker program just like others -a path to legality, not citizenship."
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