Voter statistics and demographic trends make Hispanic outreach a tantalizing proposition. The numbers speak to an illusion of sorts.

Among the Democratic White House hopefuls darting around South Florida ahead of Wednesday evening's debate has been Julián Castro, a former Texas mayor and Cabinet officer in the Obama administration.

A Hispanic, Castro would seem to have a sort of homefield-like advantage when he takes the stage on the first night of the kick-off debates with nine other rivals in Miami, a city that is a cauldron of Latino immigrants. Something Castro himself alluded to in a press conference at a local hotel.

"For me it's an opportunity to introduce myself to a lot of American voters who may not know who I am and what I'd like to do if I am elected president," said Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs under Obama. "I also believe there is a tremendous opportunity in states like Florida ... to mobilize the Latino vote like never before. I'm confidant that my candidacy, and this campaign, and if I'm the nominee, will help to galvanize the Latino vote like never before."

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Voter statistics and demographic trends make Hispanic outreach a tantalizing proposition.

In Florida, voter rolls through January of this year show that individuals identifying themselves as Hispanic account for 16.6 percent of the electorate. And one-fifth of those are not registered with either party — meaning they are up for grabs in a state where a mere 537 votes decided the 2000 presidential election and fractions of percents determined the winners of a U.S. Senate seat and the governor's race in last November's midterm elections.

"In Florida our elections come down to razor-thin margins, like one percent in a state with 22 million people," said Andrea Mercado of the New Florida Majority, which has registered 60,000 new voters in the past few years. "I absolutely think the Latino vote is going to be decisive nationally and in Florida. And if we can expand the electorate we can engage people that would otherwise stay home, and that could be a game-changer."

But here's the rub. The numbers speak to an illusion of sorts.

The "Hispanic" label lumps together disparate population segments that may share a big-picture identity but that are clearly separated by interests and status.

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Take the one issue that would seemingly bind them together: immigration.

For Puerto Rican voters, whose numbers have swelled in the Sunshine State as a result of Hurricane Maria's devastation, legal status in America is not in question. They get U.S. citizenship as a birthright owing to the commonwealth island's standing as a U.S. territory. Another large segment of voters, Cubans, have traditionally listed American policy toward their Cold War rival homeland as a priority.

Naturalized citizens from Central America, or their U.S.-born children, might indeed favor a candidate supportive of temporary protective status, TPS, if not a path to permanent residency, for those who have fled disaster and conflict in places like Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. While others, such as those from South American countries, in the past have tended to embrace easier family reunification policies, which President Trump has derided as "chain migration" and sought to curtail if not abolish.

Democratic Party officials say polls show specific pieces of their immigration platform have widespread support among Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike. They say one of those is Democrats' call for a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented children brought to the United States by their parents. Many of them have no recollection of living in any country besides the United States.

"One of the most important issues is what happens with the Dreamers," said Luisana Perez, a spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party. "Polls say Americans support a path to citizenship for Dreamers ... But this administration is only playing with them."

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In addition, Perez said, Democrats will point to passage of the American Dream and Promise Act by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month. That legislation provides Dreamers, people who were granted TPS and others "with protection from deportation and an opportunity to obtain permanent legal status."

And, at the state level, Perez said Democrats will speak out when immigration is used as a political football. In Florida, the GOP-led Legislature this year approved a bill to ban sanctuary cities, SB 168, even though "they don't even exist in Florida," she said.

"With SB 168, Gov. DeSantis and the Republicans used immigration as a way to play to their base," Perez said. "And they did so because they have the power to do what they want."

Not so at all, said the sponsor of that legislation, State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota.

"With sanctuary cities we're just saying if you're here illegally, and you're a criminal, and not only just a criminal but a bad criminal illegal alien, you should not be welcomed in our country," said Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Gruters insisted the drug flow across the border and the resulting death toll from overdoses, plus the plight of children being abused by sex traffickers as well criminals and potential terrorists taking advantage of a what he said is a porous border is a "sad and horrendous" reality that needs to be addressed.

He also noted that the many thousands of people flooding border towns create hardships for all who live in the region. And despite President Trump's attempts to address the border crisis, Democrats in Congress have been the ones blocking efforts to properly fund solutions to the crisis.

"The question is do you want open borders or not?" Gruters said. "We're not against immigration. I think we accept a million people a year in terms of our immigration policies ... There's a lot of people out there that are trying to provide a better environment for their families, and are trying to seek employment and better opportunities. And for them, if they are following the law, they have nothing to worry about."

The challenge, added one Democratic lobbyist with deep roots in Hispanic canvassing, is that Democrats have a heavier lift explaining the nuances of immigration policies while Republicans have effectively dominated the debate with a cutting sound bite.

"They've boiled it down to, 'If you're here legally, you're in. If you're here illegally, you're out," said the strategist, who asked not to be named.

Immigration policy advocates say the debates offer Democrats an opportunity to hit the reset button on immigration.

"Look, the Democratic candidates are being painted as the 'open border, abolish ICE 'candidates," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C. "They should be using this opportunity to say we as a country can be a nation of laws and a nation of grace. We can balance our security needs with the way we believe we should be treating people."

Particularly, Noorani said, at a debate in South Florida, a region deeply intertwined with immigrant and exile success stories.

"There is a plurality of voters in the country that have serious questions about immigration and are looking for serious answers that go beyond a sound bite," he said. "While time will be short in the debates, the candidate who can clearly say this is a complicated problem, it demands and requires a complicated solution, and these are the three things I want to do will stand out."

The three things Noorani said he'd like hear are a commitment to invest in Central America to "get those countries back on their feet," support for an asylum system with resources so people can apply for refuge "in a fair and efficient way" and calls for an enforcement system that "treats people compassionately, keeps us safe and those people who don't qualify for asylum" should not be allowed to remain.

"That sort of answer that balances the public's desire for control over the immigration system with the public's desire to treat people compassionately that's the kind of answer that candidates should be ready to share," said Noorani.

The New Florida Majority's Mercado said some candidates still think "they can speak a few words in Spanish and that's sufficient, but that will not suffice." She points out not all have issued detailed immigration proposals — Julián Castro, she said, has stood out with his plan to address root causes of immigration. And Mercado adds candidates also have to go beyond immigration by speaking to issues like increased wages, health care coverage, climate change and student loan debt.

"I don't think it's any self-respecting Latino can vote for Trump but that doesn't mean they are going to come out on Election Day and vote for the Democratic candidates," Mercado said. "The Democratic candidates need to come with bold proposals to the issues we face."

 afins@pbpost.com

@PBPoliticsFins

This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.