Immigration reform advocates have been abuzz with the news that President Obama is to meet with Republican senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic senator Charles Schumer at the White House later this week. But insiders say the closed door meeting, which the president requested, is largely for show. Officially, Graham and Schumer say they need two more GOP co-sponsors for their bill, which includes a sweeping legalisation programme for undocumented immigrants, and stepped up border and workplace enforcement. But with mid-term elections just eight months away, and the campaign season likely to start in early May, there’s not much time left to make legislative headway.

Republicans have been racking up one election victory after another and would rather deal with immigration from a position of strength, with their own party leaders chairing judiciary and other key congressional committees (which they will, if the GOP takes back one or both chambers). And for GOP nativists, further delay, followed by a Republican consolidation of power, is their best hope for derailing the Democrats’ dreaded “amnesty” programme. In fact, neither party has the luxury of waiting much longer to address the nation’s most contentious policy issue after healthcare. Obama’s Latino support – he beat John McCain 2-1, reversing the GOP inroads made with Latinos under Bush – is shrinking. And not just because he has continually delayed action on immigration reform.

Latinos, in fact, are moderate voters, and they typically split their political preferences among Democrats (35-40%), Republicans (20-25%), and Independents (35-40%). That means Latinos are falling away from Obama for the same reason other swing voters are: disenchantment with his handling of healthcare, rising deficit, and joblessness. But they are not falling away as fast or as hard because Latinos still see Democrats as their friends on immigration, and most Republicans, as adversaries.

But that perception could soon change, depending on how Republicans act. GOP gubernatorial candidates who won in Virginia and New Jersey, and more recently Scott Brown in Massachusetts, were able to capture an enormous share of the independent vote because they not only emphasised bread and butter issues, but also soft-pedalled their opposition to abortion and illegal immigration, and reached out to ethnic minorities. In pre-election polls, Bob McDonnell, the GOP candidate in Virginia, ran virtually neck-and-neck with Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds among Latinos – an astounding turnaround from Obama’s drubbing of McCain two years ago.

Republicans at the national level are also taking note of the need for a new approach to immigration, lest the party lose Latinos for an entire generation, or longer. To capitalise on recent Republican gains, GOP chairman Michael Steele is urging his party to include Hispanics as an integral part of GOP campaign planning. And even Sarah Palin is getting in on the act, telling a TV interviewer last month that immigration was part of America’s “legacy” and the GOP needed to get back to “welcoming” immigrants, rather than “excluding” them. Alas, for the Democrats, the days when Republicans could be counted on to try to use immigration as a “wedge” issue – only to have it blow up in their face – may finally be over.

But for the GOP, turning their immigrant-friendly posturing into party-wide support for immigration reform is still a work in progress. It’s certainly news to the Tea Party, the grassroots conservative movement that Palin, among others, is assiduously courting to attract new GOP voters. Tea Partiers are staunch critics of immigration policies that, in their view, favour liberal pressure groups at the expense of “mainstream” America. That’s why Hispanic Marco Rubio, who is running for the Florida Senate seat vacated by fellow Cuban-American Mel Martinez, is not just a bright light for the Tea Party, and for the GOP, but also a potential challenge. He’s a patriotic American, and a staunch defender of private enterprise and smaller government. But his parents were dirt poor peasants who migrated to America thanks to a fast-track legalisation programme that treats the Cuban-born as an elite class of immigrant exempt from “normal” entry rules.

Many Cubans Rubio’s age periodically try to make the perilous journey to America aboard makeshift rafts. Mexican “illegals” that lack the Cuban privilege make just as perilous a journey by land to reach America safely. There’s not much difference there. That’s why Rubio’s Cuban-American counterparts in the House, all staunch Republicans, have long supported immigration reform. Assuming Rubio wins this November, he’ll be hard pressed to resist reform of some kind, and so will the GOP.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are beginning to make the same mistake they made in the pre-Bush years when they took the Latino vote for granted. Latino leaders are furious that the White House enlisted them in the healthcare reform debate, then stabbed them in the back by agreeing to GOP demands that illegal immigrants be barred from receiving healthcare benefits. The White House tried to mollify the leadership by promising to push immigration reform, which would allow illegal immigrants to get healthcare once they became legal residents. But the administration, still bogged down on healthcare, and unable to reverse the nation’s jobless rate, hasn’t lived up to its side of the bargain.

Hence, this week’s White House showpiece meeting with Schumer and Graham. It’s meant to say to Latinos and to immigration advocates, “I am still with you”. But for Latinos, long accustomed to being courted, then shunted to the side, all it really says is: “Mañana.”