"If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past, why, we're in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation," he said.
Many Republican strategists say that moment already has arrived. "There's no more time left demographically to be tinkering at the margins, doing window dressing like they have for 20 years," said Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign consultant based in Sacramento. "That's not going to work anymore."
Surveys by Latino Decisions and other polling companies have shown that immigration is a make-or-break issue for many Latino voters, including Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans who are not directly affected by the debate. Even though more Latino voters might side with the GOP on other issues, the party's stand on immigration helps create an image of hostility, the polling shows. An analysis of exit poll data by the Pew Hispanic Center showed Obama tied Romney even among Cuban American voters in Florida, who have long been a source of strength for Republican candidates.
"Republicans need to make this go away" before they can attract new voters, Segura said.
On the other side, many Republican members of the House, whose districts often include few Latino constituents, fear a backlash if they move toward compromise on immigration policy. Many of the party's most loyal voters vehemently oppose anything that they consider "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. But a provision that would allow at least some illegal immigrants to achieve citizenship is a minimum requirement for major Latino groups.
Opposition within Republican ranks led to defeat of the last attempt to push a large-scale immigration reform package through Congress in 2007.
That bill, proposed by President Bush, would have created a guest worker program, increased the number of agents patrolling the border and created a path to citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. as children, among other provisions. Conservatives denounced it while labor unions objected that the plan would bring thousands of low-wage guest workers into the United States.
In 2009, Obama White House aides and Cabinet officials spent months hammering out a framework for reform in closed-door talks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. But Reid's vote counters saw a difficult midterm election on the horizon and couldn't get enough Senate Democrats to get on board; the effort never saw the light of day.
Any new effort to pass immigration bills will face similar head winds. Democratic vote counters say that at least seven senators on their side who represent states with few Latino voters are reluctant to vote on the issue. Several Senate Republicans who have supported reform efforts in the past, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are up for re-election in 2014 and could face primary challenges if they stray too far from party orthodoxy.
The outlook in the Republican-controlled House is even tougher. In an interview with reporters this fall, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership, said a majority could not be put together in the House for any sort of comprehensive immigration package. At best, the House would be able to pass smaller pieces of legislation tackling the less controversial aspects of immigration policy, he said.