Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric could lose Republicans the 2016 election
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/ Flickr)

They have come to Florida from across Latin America.

Related: Donald Trump wants to deport 11 million migrants: is that even possible?

El Salvador. Colombia. Puerto Rico. Mexico. Cuba. Some driven by economic opportunity. Some by conflict. Others by natural disaster. Most are in the US legally, sometimes for decades. A minority are not.

But for many within the US’s Latino community those distinctions are being blurred by Donald Trump ’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobic presidential campaign.

“We’re all Mexicans now,” said Miguel Mendizabal, a lawyer who immigrated legally to the US from Ecuador at the age of 13. “I think Trump has helped many Latino people begin to see that they’re all treated as one person. This has helped rally a lot of people in favour of immigration reform. I also think he’s made it much harder for any Republican candidate to win an election.”

That is a view shared by Hispanic leaders in the Republican party, who warn that the tenor of the immigration debate led by Trump is alienating voters seen as key to winning the White House in 2016. Their concern is not only the debate about policy, including Trump’s widely scorned threat to deport 11 million people , but his claim that Mexican immigrants are responsible for a (non-existent) crime wave and suggestion that speaking Spanish is un-American .

Hector Barreto, head of the small business administration in George W Bush’s White House and co-chair of Mitt Romney’s “Hispanic Leadership Team” in the 2012 election, said that the longer Trump continues his run the more damage he will do to whomever is the Republican presidential candidate.

“I hope that the Republican party says this guy is not representative and we’re going to take the party back because if we don’t take control of the party there won’t be any party after this,” said Barreto, whose father immigrated from Mexico and founded the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“The danger we’re facing right now is if this kind of rhetoric is not checked, if this becomes normal, if the other political candidates feel maybe I need to talk more like Trump.”

Nowhere is that more true than Florida, with its rapidly growing and diversifying Latino population. Conventional political wisdom has it that the Republicans must win the state to take back the presidency.

The key to Florida, according to its former governor Jeb Bush, another presidential candidate, is a Latino vote that has shifted sharply away from the GOP in recent elections.

Two years ago, Bush warned in his book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution , that the Republicans “cannot win future national elections without increased Hispanic support” in key swing states.

Obama won Florida in the last presidential election by a margin of less than 1% , in a state where 17% of the voting population was Hispanic. Even a small shift in Latino support could deliver Florida to the Republicans.

Jeb Bush’s plan was to present himself as the candidate prepared to confront Republican primary voters with the cold, hard truth about the need to have a reasoned immigration policy and win over enough Latino support to change the electoral equation.

His supporters present Bush as the man to deliver Florida, and therefore the White House, because of his popularity among Hispanic voters when governor and because he is the Spanish-speaking husband of a Mexican immigrant . But Trump’s bombastic rhetoric has drowned out the calls for more reasoned debate, at least for now.

“On the Republican side this has become a trigger point,” said Barreto, who now heads the Hispanic Business Roundtable Institute . “You can’t even talk about it any more. Unless you agree with the extreme positions of somebody like Trump, you’re not credible on the issue.”

Bush blames shrinking Latino support for the GOP over the past decade – Romney won just 27% of the Latino vote nationally, down from 40% for Jeb’s brother , George W Bush, in 2004 – in large part on the “toxic” immigration debate within the party.

Bush said it “hung like an anvil” around Romney’s candidacy after his widely ridiculed assertion that millions of undocumented immigrants would “self-deport”.

“The toxic rhetoric of ‘self-deportation’ suggests that certain groups are not wanted,” Bush wrote.

Barreto said Romney’s statements led Latino voters to conclude that he did not care about them. Now, he warns, the Republican party is alienating them in an even more dramatic way.

“I think the way we talk about immigration is important,” he said. “When you’re talking bad about an illegal immigrant and how bad they are, you just offended my grandma, my favourite cousin, my little nephew. It gets personal.

“When you talk about immigrants are a drag on our society, on our economy, we don’t understand that because our reality’s been totally different. We know the contributions we’ve made to this country. I’m not an immigrant. I’m second generation. But when you demagogue the issue, you turn off all those people.”

Related: Driven by fear: the Salvadorean children sent on the perilous journey to the US

Trump’s supporters argue that he is not targeting all immigrants, only those who cross the border illegally. But his language – the talk of Mexicans as criminals and rapists, his criticism of Bush for speaking Spanish in America and a tweet which said Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife” – are widely read within the Latino community as hostile to Hispanics in general.

Anthony Suarez is a Republican activist who presents a Spanish-language radio talk show in Orlando, is president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida and is founder of the San Juan Hill Republican club. He said the noise around immigration was drowning out the GOP’s message on policies that connect with conservative Latinos.

“One of the things I have been urging within the Republican party is that you can’t get to the message of fiscally responsible government when the first message that you hear is we want to kick you, your grandmother and your family out of the country. No one will hear you,” he said.

“You’ve got to change your tune and you’ve got to change your message on the issue of immigration if you want to get to the rest of the message the party’s trying to project. Unfortunately we have a portion of the Republican party that either doesn’t care or is totally deaf. That’s the battle that has to be fought within the party. Until we get a purge of this wing of the party we’re not going to go forward.”

The Republicans’ struggle to win Florida is not made easier by the dramatically shifting demographics of its Latino population. It used to be that the party could count on solid support from the large Cuban American population who wanted to maintain a tough US stand against Fidel Castro. But a younger generation of Cuban American voters cares less about Castro and has moved toward the Democrats, in part drawn by Obama’s election campaigns.

Meanwhile a surge in the Latino population in Florida from other places, particularly Puerto Rico, has robbed the Republicans of that advantage.

Puerto Ricans, who tend to register as Democrats or independents, are arguably the Latino population least affected by the immigration debate because they are born as US citizens. But Suarez said the ties were still there.

“I’m of Puerto Rican descent,” he said, “and in the Puerto Rican community this language, even though immigration has nothing to do with Puerto Ricans, it resounds because every Puerto Rican has somebody who’s an immigrant. In my own family, my daughters are married to a Dominican and Argentine.”

Following the influx of Puerto Ricans, half of the population of Osceola county, south of Orlando, is Latino. The chairman of the county’s Republican party, Mark Oxner, acknowledged that it faces a struggle to win over Hispanic voters – although he did not blame only Trump.

“The tone could be more civil but it’s not only with Hispanics,” said Oxner, who is married to a Panamanian immigrant. “It’s with women and other groups. Donald Trump has a very strong message and sometimes, through his background, doesn’t always filter what he says before he says it.

“Sometimes I don’t think we get a fair representation of the Republican party in the Hispanic media. I think that’s been a big part of the shift [in Latino attitudes toward the party] because the news talks about how the Republicans are so against immigration.

“Republicans aren’t against immigration. Republicans are against having no immigration policy at all because we have immigration laws but the laws aren’t enforced.”

There is no doubt that Latino perceptions of Trump and Republican immigration policy are shaped by Spanish-language news reports largely unseen by the rest of America. Whereas much of the English-language media treats Trump as something between an oddity and a clown, the nightly news on the two principal Spanish-language television stations, Univision and Telemundo, has been more extensive and hard hitting.

It was one of Univision’s most prominent faces, Jorge Ramos, co-anchor of its nightly news and, polls say, the most trusted source on news among Latinos, who was thrown out of a press conference by Trump after challenging the candidate over his plans to deport millions of people and build a wall the length of the Mexican border.

Related: Jorge Ramos tells Megyn Kelly: Trump a would-be dictator with dangerous ideas

Univision’s reports on Trump have also delved into areas which unsettle many Latinos, such as whether his statements are opening the door to a public airing of racism and hostility, including violent attacks, that many thought were in the past.

“I was at a lunch with 300 Hispanic leaders honouring the anchor with Univision, Maria Elena Salinas,” said Barreto. “She said, ‘I don’t worry about Trump because he’s going to be gone. However I’m getting hate mail on a regular basis right now and I didn’t even interview Donald Trump. This hate mail says you’re not one of us, you’re not American, you should go back to Mexico, we hate you, you should die.’

“That’s the tenor of it. This woman is a US citizen. She loves America and everything about it.”

Barreto said that for many Latinos there is a sense that the acceptance they thought they had finally won in US society is again being challenged.

Mendizabal, an immigration lawyer whose mother moved to New York from Ecuador in the early 1960s to escape an abusive husband, and worked as a seamstress in the city for 35 years, feels it too.

“I think it has created this feeling that there’s racism in America all over again, that racism is alive and well in America,” he said. “People have said to me that Trump is a joke, he’s really not going to be elected. But he’s really polarising. He turning people against each other.”

Suarez said that if Trump were to get his party’s presidential nomination, it would see the Latino vote go almost entirely to the Democrats – as happened with African American voters during the struggle for civil rights.

“If Donald Trump should be the Republican candidate, in my opinion it would be the biggest disaster for the Republican party since the Republicans turned against the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” said Suarez. “It will be the defining moment when people ask, ‘When did you lose the Latino vote?’ It would be disastrous.”

Barreto said some leading Republicans do not care.

“There are a lot of prominent conservative voices in the Republican party,” he said, “which I do not agree with, who say: ‘Write off the Hispanic vote. We don’t need it. We’re never going to get it. They’re never going to support us. They’re not like us.’ Whatever that rhetoric is. I think that’s a suicide mission.

“Where do think they’re going to get more votes? How do you win? Who are your voters of tomorrow going to be? If you alienate a whole generation of those voters, the way that we’ve been doing in the last couple of cycles, it’s over. You’re never going to win the presidency ever again.

“There’s an old saying: demographics are destiny. There are 50 million people of Hispanic descent in the United States. It’ll be at least 25% of the population in the next 30 years. You just have to be able to count. There aren’t enough white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant votes in a country that is changing as fast as the United States is.”

The assumption among many Republicans is that Trump will burn out, although that view is being increasingly tested by his resilience in the polls. But if Trump’s candidacy does founder, the question for the party will be whether it will have done lasting damage to the bid to take back the White House in 2016.

Related: Republicans used California’s ‘Juan Crow’ law as a model for other states. Now it’s dead, and so is the far-right | Gustavo Arellano

There are warnings from history. Republican control of California was wiped out in the years after the party backed a 1994 ballot initiative to bar undocumented immigrants, including children, from using public services such as schools and healthcare. Voters overwhelmingly supportedProposition 187 , known as Save Our State (SOS), only to see it struck down by California’s supreme court. But the most lasting effect was to mobilise Latino voters against the Republican party.

Democrats say that Trump has already cost the Republican party as a whole.

“People do think Trump represents the view of the party, that it’s not just him,” said Vivian Rodriguez, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida . “He’s not the only one in the Republican party who speaks against immigration reform. You also have Ted Cruz.

“Latinos are very offended. It’s alienating the Hispanic voter. Latinos in general don’t find the Republican party embracing of the Latino community. Mitt Romney was the perfect example of not what to do but I guess the Republicans didn’t learn their lesson.”

Opinion polls suggest that permanent damage may not yet be done to Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination.

In August, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Bush and senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from Florida, both stand a substantially better chance of beating Hillary Clinton in Florida than Trump.

Six months ago, Bush and Clinton were neck and neck in the state. Since then, Clinton’s unfavourability ratings have risen with a collapse in trust over her secret email server and Bush has pulled 11% ahead in Florida, according to Quinnipiac.

But if the election comes down to Trump against Clinton, the two are in a virtual tie.

In two other swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Bush and Clinton are neck and neck. But the former secretary of state is ahead of Trump by 5% in both.

“If it’s Jeb Bush, then I think it’ll all blow away,” said Suarez. “Anybody other than Bush, who’s the only one to stand against the onslaught of the Trump tsunami, unfortunately will not be able to get over the taint. Even the moderate candidates, even Rubio, will be tainted by the perception. I think it will have a lasting effect unless it’s Bush. It just can’t stick to him because he’s married to a Mexican.”

Barreto said it may depend how long Trump stays in the race.

“We have a really good opportunity to win the White House again if we don’t shoot ourselves in the head,” he said. “The other side have got plenty of problems. It’s going to be competitive. If we nominate a credible candidate we can win this thing.

“But if we keep having the circus we’re having right now, we will not win.” © Guardian News and Media 2015