By Mike Lillis
A prominent Hispanic lawmaker is predicting that President Obama and a weakened Republican Party will strike a deal on immigration next year.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez said he's received no promises from the White House that Obama would move quickly on immigration reform if reelected in November. But the Illinois Democrat said it's a lock the president would use a second term to revamp the nation's immigration laws.
Such changes have been a third rail in Washington for most of the last decade, as President George W. Bush couldn't overcome Republican opposition to his comprehensive immigration reform plan.
Gutierrez predicted the results of November's elections would prove a game changer, as the sheer number of Latinos voting against Mitt Romney will force GOP leaders to support reforms for fear of alienating those voters indefinitely.
"I'm absolutely positive he's going to [prioritize immigration reform]," Gutierrez said Friday of Obama, "because the Republicans are going to take such a beating in this election that they're going to propose [their own plan]."
Romney is working hard to ensure such a beating doesn't happen, reaching out to Latino voters in a series of recent speeches, Spanish-language ads and interviews with the Hispanic press.
"We're not going to round up people around the country and deport them," Romney said Thursday in remarks that were a sharp contrast to the hard-line enforcement focus he adopted during the GOP primaries. "We need to provide a long-term solution."
He's also attacking Obama for not passing immigration reform in his first term, saying the president "never tried to fix the immigration system."
Still, Romney's campaign says he needs 38 percent of the Latino vote to secure a victory, and recent polls put the figure closer to 30 percent.
Romney said earlier this year that unless he does better among Hispanics, his campaign is doomed.
Obama has seized on his advantage, launching a new program this summer foregoing deportations for qualified illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Asked if the White House has informed him of an immigration strategy for next year, Gutierrez gave an emphatic "no."
"We have not had conversations," said Gutierrez, who backed Obama over Hillary Clinton.
Gutierrez has not been shy in criticizing Obama for not prioritizing immigration reform in his first term. In 2010, a frustrated Gutierrez went so far as to suggest Latino voters may not show up at the polls.
"We can stay home," Gutierrez said at the time. "We can say, "You know what? There is a third option. We can refuse to participate.'"
Two years later, Gutierrez is all in for Obama.
With polls showing Latinos favor Obama over Romney by a large margin, Gutierrez said GOP leaders will be likely, post-election, to heed Republicans like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who are calling on the party to embrace immigration reform or risk losing the Latino vote for years to come.
"The political reality is that the Jeb Bushes, the Marco Rubios and the people like them are going to be empowered after this election," Gutierrez said.
Late last month, Bush said Republicans aren't going to close the gap with Hispanic voters until they "stop acting stupid."
Behind Gutierrez, Hispanic Democrats have been critical of Obama's track record on immigration reform since he took the White House. On the campaign trail in 2008, then-Sen. Obama had "guaranteed" he'd fight for comprehensive immigration reform during his first year as president.
"I want to move that forward as quickly as possible," he said at the time.
Four years later, however, the nation's immigration laws remain unchanged, as Republican opposition to the Democrats' reform proposals -- combined with a focus on the economy, healthcare reform and now November's elections -- all diluted Obama's efforts to pass an overhaul.
In an interview with Univision on Thursday, Obama blamed Republicans for flip-flopping on immigration reform to ensure it didn't pass under his watch. But he also conceded that he bears some of the blame, characterizing the issue as "his biggest failure."
"As you remind me, my biggest failure so far is we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done," he said, "so we're going to be continuing to work on that."
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Obama's mea culpa will go a long way to build support in the Hispanic community.
"It's a tough thing to say, for him, that it was a disappointment," Grijalva said. "But it was very honest and very straight up, and I think a lot of people appreciated that."
Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008. Conservative Republicans, however, aren't convinced Romney's numbers will be as low as Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.).
"I don't think they'll be as bad," Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said Friday. "I think we're gonna pick up votes in the Latino and every community."
Still, some GOP strategists argue that a Romney loss in November would likely push Republicans to walk back their hard line on immigration reform.
"If Republicans lose, it will be part for a failure to attract Hispanic votes," Mark McKinnon, former aide to President George W. Bush, said Saturday in an e-mail. "And a positive outcome would be a likely softening on immigration reform."
McCain was a proponent of immigration reform during George W. Bush's administration. He subsequently shifted right, emphasizing border control when he faced a primary challenge in 2010.
Gutierrez said he'll spend much of the next six weeks campaigning for Obama in three battleground states where the Latino vote is expected to play a crucial role: Nevada, Colorado and Florida.
"If I'm right, and the road to the White House goes through the barrios of the United States -- through Nevada and Colorado and Florida -- and it's the Latino vote that swings the Electoral College," he said Friday, then immigration reform will be impossible to ignore next year.
The Illinois Democrat also had some advice for Obama's first act in a second term:
"Go to Camp David, invite Marco Rubio out, and say, "Bring whoever else you want [and] let's figure this out.'"