CHICAGO -- Mitt Romney passed up a golden opportunity last week to take a meaningful step toward making inroads with the Latino community by proving he's not harshly anti-immigrant. He blew it.
No, I'm not referring to his speech to the Latino Coalition's annual economic summit. There Romney laid out his vision for our public schools, told a crowd of high-rolling Latinos "I love you," and asked for their vote without ever mentioning immigration.
Romney got flack about skating past the immigration issue because the speech had been seen by some as the perfect opportunity to clarify a monstrous blunder that has been hanging over his head since early May. At that time -- one and a half months after Romney's senior adviser implied that once the primaries were concluded the candidate would reset his conservative positions for the fall contest -- his Hispanic outreach director misstepped by admitting to a reporter that she didn't know if he was going to Etch A Sketch his stance on immigration.
"I think as a candidate, to my understanding, that he's still deciding what his position on immigration is," she said. This aroused the ire of everyone who had taken Romney at his word when he said he opposed the DREAM Act, that he thought Arizona's immigration law was a good model for the nation, and that he wants illegal immigration to solve itself through mass self-deportation.
But who could blame Romney from staying away from such a caustic topic at a gathering of Hispanic business owners who had convened to talk about the economy? Actually, Romney's choice to talk solely about education was politically smart.
Poll upon poll of registered Latino voters reinforces the fact that immigration is not the top Election Day worry of Hispanics -- the economy, jobs and education are by far the main concerns and, by those standards, Romney's speech scored high. He stuck to those points while honoring his audience by unveiling to the nation his first thoughts on a major campaign issue.
So no, that's not his wasted opportunity.
The missed chance occurred a day later when word started getting around about how Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, had likened immigrants to dogs during a campaign stump speech.
Known for his bill to end birthright citizenship and his 2010 remarks suggesting that law enforcement agents can be trained to tell who is an illegal immigrant by their clothes and grooming, King said that highly educated immigrants were the "pick of the litter" and that you don't want "the one that's over there sleeping in the corner."
The dehumanizing remarks are only the latest in a long string of instances in which far-right politicians have likened immigrants to lesser life forms.
King suggested in 2006 that an electrified fence at the border would discourage illegal immigrants in the same way such fences successfully restrain livestock. In 2010, Tennessee state Rep. Curry Todd said that U.S. citizenship laws allow pregnant illegal immigrants to "go out there like rats and multiply." In 2011, Kansas state Rep. Virgil Peck said illegal immigrants should be shot from helicopters: "It looks like to me if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a [solution] to our illegal immigration problem."
So, given this history, King's dog metaphors were vile. And Romney would have earned himself some major brownie points with moderate Republicans, independents, a few Democrats and most Latinos had he repudiated King's words.
The fact is that even though it's true that immigration is not the single most important issue to Hispanics, the hostile tone surrounding it infuriates and harms all Latinos regardless of their citizenship status or political affiliation.
Standing up to the far right by condemning such belittling language would have earned Romney some respect from Latinos who believe that both he and the Republican Party hate them. And it would have demonstrated the kind of leadership all voters crave.
But all is not lost -- it's not as though Romney won't have another opportunity to take the initiative. It's only a matter of time before the next foul-mouthed politician lets it slip that he believes illegal immigrants are less than human.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.