Representatives of immigration advocacy groups sharply criticized former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the frontrunner GOP presidential contender, on Monday for his alliance with Kris Kobach, who helped craft some of the toughest state immigration laws.

Romney’s campaign would neither confirm or deny that Monday the candidate was going to be with Kobach on the campaign trail in South Carolina, which has a tough new anti-illegal immigration law. 

But in an interview with Kobach on Fox News last week, host Neil Cavuto mentioned that Kobach would be with Romney in South Carolina – which will hold its primary on Saturday -- on Monday, and asked the anti-illegal immigrant activist about the appearance with the candidate.

Kobach, who is Kansas’ Secretary of State, announced his endorsement of Romney last week. He told Cavuto that he supports Romney because he is the most far-right on immigration of all the presidential candidates.

"On the issue of illegal immigration, Gov. Romney stands to the right," Kobach said. "He's the more conservative candidate and I would say head and shoulders above the others, because he has actually taken a very strong law enforcement-oriented anti-amnesty position."

Romney, who has said he would handle immigration with a hard line if elected president, noted the endorsement on his website and said “I’m so proud to earn Kris’s support."

Among the strongest critics of Romney's seeming embrace of Kobach, is Democratic Congressman Luis Gutíerrez from Illinois. “On the day we observe Martin Luther King's birth, Mitt Romney and the Republicans are campaigning in the Deep South to restrict the civil rights of immigrants,” Gutíerrez said, “and to continue our nation's neglect of immigration reform based on the fantasy that 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants could, should, or world leave the United States.”

Gutíerrez was a participant in a telephonic conference to criticize Romney's approach coordinated by America’s Voice, which advocates for measures that would enable undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.

“On the day we observe Martin Luther King's birth, Mitt Romney and the Republicans are campaigning in the Deep South to restrict the civil rights of immigrants."

- U.S. Rep. Luiz Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat

“That Mitt Romney is [campaigning] with Kris Kobach,” Gutíerrez said, “the architect of the anti-immigration wave of bills at the state and local level, the author of the Arizona and Alabama bills, a man affiliated with the anti-immigrant movement's worst elements, and the Dark Lord of the anti-immigration movement -- is appalling.”

Several efforts -- via telephone and e-mail -- to get a comment from Romney campaign officials were unsuccessful.

Romney has said he opposes measures that would give undocumented immigrants any kind of break. He said he opposes the DREAM Act, a measure would allow some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military.

Kobach is a chief architect of some of the strictest state-level immigration laws in the country, including those of Arizona and Alabama. Parts of such laws have been blocked by judges from taking effect until they make a final decision on the constitutionality of states adopting their own immigration measures. The U.S. Justice Department has sued the states, saying that immigration is solely a federal matter.

Immigration has been one of Romney’s central campaign issues – he has pushed a hard-line position on the matter in an effort to draw a contrast against himself and GOP rivals who’ve taken a less tough stance on certain immigration issues.

Romney attacked GOP rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a debate last year for allowing undocumented students in his state to attend college at the same rate as legal U.S. residents and citizens. The exchange, in which Perry came off less firm and confident than Romney, has been cited as having helped topple Perry from his once leading position among the GOP presidential contenders.

Romney also has gone after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he supports allowing undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for 25 years or longer – and meet certain criteria – a chance to work legally in this country.

Political experts expect immigration to intensify as an election issue when President Obama tries to regain support from Hispanics to win Florida's 29 electoral votes. Obama reportedly won about 57 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote in 2008, including 38 percent of Cuban-Americans.

A Pew poll in December indicated that Hispanics nationwide overwhelmingly favor Obama in a potential matchup with Romney - 68 percent to 23 percent - despite disenchantment with the president's failure to overhaul immigration law and his administration's controversial deportation policies.

Last week, on the same day Romney touted Kobach’s endorsement, his campaign aired Spanish-language television advertisements in Florida, whose primary is Jan. 31. The advertisement portrayed Romney as a candidate who believed in the American Dream, and in the same values that Latinos esteem.

Celebrities Who Were Once Undocumented

But immigrant-rights groups and some political watchers say the GOP has alienated Latino voters, and that the damage may be irreversible. They argue that the GOP has severely hampered itself as it looks to woo the critical Latino voting bloc that could decide who wins key states like New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida next fall.

On Monday, Texas-based "Somos Republicans" announced their endorsement for Gingrich, saying they opposed Romney's take-no-prisoners views on illegal immigration.

Eliseo Medina of the Service Employee International Union said in the telephonic conference:  “Mr. Romney  has proven that he is not only ignorant about the Latino community, he is ‘un candidato de dos caras,’ a two-faced candidate.”

“He says one thing in English and another thing in Spanish,” Medina said. “Apparently, Mitt believes that because he is speaking in English, Latinos will not catch on to his real agenda.  Unfortunately for Mitt, Latinos do speak English. . .Latinos are paying very close attention to what the candidates are saying to them and about them. We are tuned in and we will turn out in November.”

This story contains material from The Associated Press.

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente

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