(CBS NEWS) -- Is President Obama "the most anti-immigrant president we've ever had?"
That's the bold claim being made by conservative Latino strategist Alfonso Aguilar, who is spearheading a new effort designed to diminish Latino support for Mr. Obama in the key swing state of Nevada ahead of the November elections. He and his allies have a lot of work to do: A NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll out this week found that Mr. Obama leads presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney 61 to 27 percent among registered Latino voters nationally.
The percentage of Latinos in the national electorate has increased in each of the past four elections, rising from two percent in 1992 to nine percent in 2008. Dating back to 1972, Republicans have won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote just once: In 2004, when President George W. Bush took 44 percent. Four years later, Sen. John McCain won just 31 percent of the Latino vote to Mr. Obama's 67 percent. No wonder that Romney himself was overheard at a closed-door fundraiser last month saying that if Republicans don't turn around their performance with Latinos, "it spells doom for us."
A common benchmark, used this week in the Los Angeles Times, is that Romney needs 40 percent of the Latino vote in November. His effort to get there is complicated by the fact that during the Republican primary, he staked out a position to the right of his rivals on illegal immigration - attacking rival Rick Perry for backing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, dismissing Newt Gingrich's support for allowing some illegal immigrants who have been in the country for a long time to gain legal status as "amnesty." Romney's positions prompted Aguilar to tell the Washington Post in December that "[i]t pains me to say this, but if we have a negative narrative on immigration, it's because of Mitt Romney."
Aguilar's group, Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, is spearheading the new "Nevada Hispanics" project, which will involve outreach at Latino supermarkets, churches and other public spaces. Latinos made up nearly 27 percent of the Nevada population as of the 2010 census; a survey from Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling last month found that the president leads Romney 69-30 among Nevada Latinos.
The effort - which Aguilar says will come at a cost of up to $1 million, provided by conservative donors he will not identify - is designed to provide "education" on around three main areas: "Free enterprise," social conservative values and immigration. "Nevada Hispanics" technically isn't officially backing a candidate, but its pro-Romney, anti-Obama agenda is clear.
Aguilar argues that Latinos should reconsider their support for the president over his having overseen a record number of deportations of illegal immigrants, which he describes as "a policy of massive and systematic deportations that is much more punitive than the Arizona law." He argues that Mr. Obama has been "worse than Joe Arpaio" on immigration, claiming that the president's record is worse than that of the controversial Arizona sheriff and hard-line opponent of illegal immigration who has been sued by the Justice Department over allegations of racial profiling.
"It's pretty clear that the president is using this issue for political expediency," said Aguilar, pointing out that the president promised to use his political capital to push through immigration reform, but then focused on health care and other issues instead.
The Obama administration's deportation policy has prompted anger from other Latino leaders, and a Pew Hispanic Center poll released in December found that Latinos disapprove of the Obama administration's deportation policy by a two-to-one margin. The poll also found that just 25 percent of native-born Latinos knew deportations were higher under Mr. Obama than under his predecessor - something Aguilar says his effort is designed to change.
Administration officials say they have focused on deporting illegal immigrants who are criminals while allowing compassionate treatment of illegal immigrants who otherwise follow the law, a claim that Aguilar says doesn't hold up to scrutiny. "If you look at the [Department of Homeland Security] numbers, almost 60 percent of those being deported have no criminal record whatsoever," he said. The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for a response to Aguilar's comments.
As for Romney, Aguilar says he is encouraged by the fact that the presumptive nominee is "clarifying" his positions since the primaries, noting Romney's flirtation with a GOP version of the DREAM Act and his support for a guest worker program. Still he admits that "because of his comments, which were unnecessary, he begins handicapped."
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is not taking Latino support for granted. It has released two sets of Spanish-language television and radio ads, with a focus on Hispanic media outlets in Colorado, Nevada and Florida, and its "Latinos for Obama" initiative is focused on reaching out to and registering Latino voters. And on Thursday, a left-leaning super PAC released an ad spotlighting some of Romney's past comments on immigration and tying him to Arpaio and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the controversial S.B. 1070 immigration law that is now under Supreme Court review.
Aguilar argues that Republicans can win back Latinos, noting that they are far from a monolithic group. "It's an ethnic group with a diversity of characteristics - racial, religious, socioeconomic backgrounds," he pointed out.
"The only thing that Republicans need to do is engage Latinos, show up, and have a constructive position on immigration," argued Aguilar, who said that they needed to move "beyond enforcement-only solutions."
"The question is," he added, "how soon will Republicans get it?"
Brian Montopoli, CBS NEWS