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Obama immigration stance locks in Hispanic support

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LAS VEGAS — Elizabeth Alvisar is exactly the sort of voter Mitt Romney needs.

A victim of the brutal economy in this swing state, the 30-year-old tax preparer has been out of work for months. She's a foe of abortion and gay marriage, and was naturally drawn to the Republican ticket.

But Alvisar has switched her support to President Barack Obama because of his support for legislation known as the DREAM Act. While Democrats failed to get the bill through Congress, Obama in June announced a change in policy to implement its key provision — allowing young people brought into the country without authorization as children to avoid deportation if they graduate high school or join the military.

"I have a lot of friends who've taken advantage of that opportunity," Alvisar said.

In the heavily Hispanic neighborhood where Alvisar lives, unemployment is high and home values are down. But Obama's immigration stance, and especially his executive order, has locked in support from a fast-growing demographic group that has been trending sharply Democratic in the wake of increasingly hard-line Republican positions on immigration.

Obama's campaign is counting on Hispanics providing the margin of victory not just in Nevada, but also in other swing states such as Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina

"They know that he's on the right side of the immigration issue and wants to work with Congress for comprehensive immigration reform," deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said. "They know he wakes up every day and thinks about how to secure the middle class and make it easier for young people to enter the middle class."

The importance of Hispanics as a voting bloc and immigration as an election-year issue was brought home during last week's presidential debate. Obama reminded viewers that Romney, who went hard to the right on the issue during the GOP primaries, had argued for "self-deportation" to solve the illegal immigration problem and took advice on the issue from the law professor who helped write Arizona's controversial immigration statute. The Republican challenger noted that Obama had promised to pass an immigration overhaul and had failed.

The Romney campaign says Hispanics, enduring a 9.9 percent jobless rate, which is more than 2 points higher than the national average, are a natural draw for the GOP ticket. "Hispanics are hurting almost more than any other demographic group under the Obama economy," Romney's Spanish-speaking son Craig, a frequent surrogate in the Hispanic community, said in a brief interview. "They're really struggling and they understand that this president has failed them and we need someone who understands how to create jobs."

The Romney campaign opened an office here in September and last week hosted New Mexico's popular Hispanic governor, Susana Martinez, in an effort to cut into Obama's edge in East Las Vegas, home to 42 percent of Nevada's Hispanic population.

But even some Romney supporters are pessimistic that Republicans can make inroads with a population that, many polls show, favors Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.

"It's going to take several years because we haven't engaged this community at all," said Joel Garcia, a conservative who formed a coalition to recruit Hispanics here. "You've got a lot of Hispanics who are conservative in how they live their lives and their values, but there's this hook in their mouth pulling them left called immigration."

Much like any other group, Hispanics often list the economy, jobs and education as top issues in polls. But the acrimonious immigration debate of the past decade has given that issue extra weight for them. "What started as a war on illegal immigration is now being perceived as a war on Latinos," said Matt Barreto, who polls Hispanics for the company Latino Decisions.

Nevada is a prime example of that dynamic. In 2010, Hispanics helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid win re-election against a tea party candidate who promoted her staunch anti-illegal immigration stance. Republican Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic who was elected governor at the same time, only won 33 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Until Obama's executive order, Hispanic activists were frustrated that Obama had not pursued plans to legalize more illegal immigrants. Instead, his administration was deporting them in record numbers.

"Before President Obama made his decision to go forward with deferred action, it was pretty dismal," said Vicenta Montoya, an immigration attorney and Democratic activist. "I was going to vote for Obama but it wasn't going to be with grand enthusiasm."

Now Obama's order has fired up Montoya and others in East Las Vegas, a swath of shopping centers, tire shops and weathered ranch houses sprawling east from the Strip. It's the neighborhood of the often-unionized people who make Sin City function — housekeepers, card dealers and taxi drivers.

For some, Obama's order pulled them into politics. Earlier this month, Hector Rivera's father asked him what he was going to do with his future. Rivera, a high school senior who was brought into the United States without authorization when he was 5, went to the East Las Vegas Obama campaign office and volunteered.

The teenager already has applied for documents allowing him to work under Obama's program. "It's an opportunity for me and future generations," said Rivera, 17, imagining how his own unborn children could benefit someday. "Even though they'll be born here, I want to get a better job to give them a better opportunity so they can live a better life."

Others, like Sergio Solis, have suffered economically but see the president as on their side. Solis had to close a restaurant in Southern California and move here to work as a salesman for an energy company. But, after approvingly mentioning the DREAM Act, Solis said it will take time to correct the country's course following the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.

"This building here, I can dynamite it and destroy it in five minutes," Solis said, gesturing to a supermarket where he was handing out brochures. "But I can't build it back up in five minutes."

The Romney campaign's East Las Vegas office shares a strip mall with a bail bond company and a tortilleria. It opened after volunteers in the neighborhood urged the campaign to set up shop closer to their homes, so they didn't have to drive to the suburbs to phone-bank or collect yard signs.

Susana Loli, 56, is thrilled. The hotel housekeeper didn't vote for Obama in 2008. But as the economy collapsed before his inauguration, she hoped he could keep the country healthy. Now her side business fixing garage doors has shriveled, and she had to sell family property in Peru to stave off foreclosure on her Nevada house.

"With Mitt Romney, we'll have a better future for my children and grandchildren," Loli said. "The Latinos who are going to vote for Obama haven't studied the problem. When you talk to them and explain the situation, then they understand."

Ana Maria Gonzalez, 50, was disappointed that some Hispanics support Obama because of his executive order. She backs Romney because of her faith in his business acumen and moral values, but also because she thinks he's more likely to deliver a humane overhaul of the country's immigration system.

"In four years, President Obama did nothing," Gonzalez said, adding, that she was certain Romney would come up with a way to let DREAM Act youth and other deserving illegal immigrants stay in the country.

Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nickriccardi