It’s not a dinner table topic for many of them, or the sole issue that will influence whom they support for president in November.

But Latinos still listen closely to what candidates say about immigration.

A new Fox News Latino poll conducted of 1,200 likely Latino voters nationwide, under the direction of Latin Insights, shows that they care most about the economy when it comes to the presidential race.

Nearly 50 percent said jobs and the economy were the top issues for them – a markedly smaller group, 12 percent, consider immigration a top issue when choosing the President.

But immigration – and the tenor of discussions on the campaign trail about immigrants – clearly matters a lot to Latinos on a personal level. Indeed, for many Latinos, immigration is personal.

Nearly half of these U.S. citizens take offense at the term “illegal immigrant,” some seven percent are neutral on the phrase.

More than half of the respondents say they feel U.S. immigration policy is too strict. And an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – would like to see undocumented immigrants have a chance to legalize their status.

A huge percentage, 82 percent, believe undocumented immigrants do work that Americans will not do. They feel the undocumented workers help expand the economy.

An overwhelming majority --nine out of ten-- also supports the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants brought as children to gain legal U.S. residency if they attend college or join the military.

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As President, Obama has not delivered on immigration reform, to the chagrin of many Latinos who have complained that he did not push the matter with the same drive and zeal that he did, say, healthcare reform.

Nonetheless, a majority of voters said in the poll that, if they were to vote now, they’d choose Obama over any of the Republican candidates, who all have taken hard-line stances on immigration and English as the official language.

GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has pushed the idea of making life so difficult for undocumented immigrants – with tougher enforcement – in the United States that they will “self-deport.” Other GOP candidates have expressed support for tough, controversial immigration laws in such places as Arizona and Alabama – those laws, which criminalize illegal immigration, are being challenged in court.

“The question for most Latinos is not whether they want more immigration or less immigration,” said Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. “It has to do not so much with the [candidate's] stance on immigration, but the attitude that Latinos perceive that Republicans have of Latinos when they talk about immigration.”

The 2010 Census showed that there are 50 million Hispanics in the United States. About 21 million are registered to vote.  It is speculated that some 12 million will cast ballots this year. Political experts say the Republican presidential nominee would need to get at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win.

In the poll, many Latinos showed support for enforcement of immigration laws – 56 percent say that having “open borders” would be detrimental to the United States, hurting the economy. Slightly more than 30 percent differ, believing open borders would help the economy.

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More than half of Latinos in the Northeast and West say that U.S. immigration policy is “too strict,” while others in the Northwest and South believe it is, though by lower percentages – 47 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Some 57 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Independents, but less than a third of Republicans, believe immigration policy is too strict.

About a quarter of Latino voters said they feel U.S. immigration policy is effective. Some 17 percent want the United States to approach immigration more strictly.

“Like most Americans, Latinos want a balanced immigration policy – one that combines smart enforcement with a path to citizenship,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington D.C.-based organization that favors more lenient immigration policies. “What they don’t like is when opportunistic politicians try to bully immigrants out of the country and demonize people who are working hard to build a better life for their families.”

On immigration, 41 percent disapprove of Obama’s job regarding immigration, with the number climbing higher to 56 percent among Latinos between the age of 35 and 44.

Nonetheless, Latino voters said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to address immigration policies (64 percent vs. 11 percent). 

Obama campaigned on a promise to reform the U.S. immigration system in his first year. He has blamed Republicans for not going along with proposals to reform immigration.

“President Obama talks a good game, but he hasn’t delivered,” said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group. 

“It’s such an easy thing to do – blame Republicans,” said Korn, referring to Obama’s explanation for why immigration reform has not happened during his tenure. “He had a Democrat, veto-proof Congress for his first two years, and he didn’t seize upon that” to fix the immigration system.

“The commitment wasn’t really there, and the leadership wasn’t really there,” she said. “Hispanics are taken for granted” by Democrats.

The Republican Party has a negative image among Hispanic voters, with two in three saying they have an unfavorable view of the party, and 25 percent saying they have a favorable view.

Seventy percent said they feel Obama cares more about Latinos than any of the presidential candidates. Romney was chosen by 18 percent, Gingrich by 18 percent and Santorum by 18 percent.

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Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the GOP primary has held forth Republicans as “the white people’s party, it’s underscored by how the primary process has played out.”

“The very nature of the primary process forces them to be more hard-line,” he said. “The people more likely to show up to vote in the primaries are the people more likely not to want to hear anything about Hispanics.”

“No one is even really making a gesture as far as Latino voters are concerned,” said Teixeira, co-author  of "The Emerging Democratic Majority" and the editor of "America's New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West." “Hispanics themselves are not even really part of the [GOP] primary.”

The Republican National Committee did not address the poll responses on immigration, or the unfavorable view many surveyed expressed of the Republican Party with regard to its treatment of Latinos.

In its comment to Fox News Latino, the RNC stressed its message in Latino-targeted advertisements that depicts Obama as detrimental to the economic well-being of Latinos and other Americans.

“Once again, Latino voters reaffirm their belief that the most important issues are the economy and jobs,” said RNC spokesperson Alexandra Franceschi. “President Obama’s broken promises and failed policies have only brought record debt, out-of-control spending, and higher unemployment to the United States, all of which have disproportionately hurt Latinos struggling to make ends meet in this difficult economy. “

“While President Obama continues to support the same policies, Republicans support a pro-growth economic plan that will bring the change of direction we need in Washington.”

Many Republicans have voiced concern about the take-no-prisoners approach to discussing illegal immigration in the GOP primaries. They have said they fear that the candidates are alienating Latinos, and passing up the chance to win over a population where many hold conservative values.

“The Republican Party has not engaged well with Latinos in recent years, allowing Democrats to frame Republicans as anti-immigrant and even anti-Latino,” said Bob Quasius, Sr., president of Cafe Con Leche Republicans, a Latino Republican group, “even as Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants and failed to even introduce immigration reform as he had repeatedly promised during his campaign.”

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“Extreme immigration rhetoric and harsh proposals for ‘enforcement on steroids’ from a small minority of Republican politicians have fostered a perception among many Latinos that the Republican party is anti-immigrant and anti-Latino,” Quasius said. “Unfortunately many moderates have avoided the immigration issue, so the Republican voices most Latinos hear are shrill on immigration and not representative of Republicans in general.”

Latinos hardly march in lockstep. Though they tend to vote Democrat, they’re not blindly loyal to the party.

In 2004, George W. Bush – a former border-state governor who enjoyed a good relationship with then-Mexico President Vicente Fox -- actively courted Latinos. He had pushed for a guest-worker program that stalled in 2001 with the terrorist attacks. He promised Latinos that he would push for comprehensive immigration reform. And by 2004, Bush had persuaded enough Latinos that he had, indeed, tried to expand opportunities for undocumented immigrants to live or work here.

It paid off.

Latino voters gave Bush 44 percent of their support.

Latino conservatives say they will keep pressing Republicans to be more sensitive to the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc, and accentuate the common interests between the party and Latinos.

“The RNC recently began a dramatic expansion in Hispanic outreach, a move we fully support,” Quasius said. “Café Con Leche Republicans has endorsed a number of Republican candidates who support immigration reform and/or are running against extremists in Republican primaries.”

The Fox News Latino/Latin Insights poll was conducted by Latin Insights, a New York based independent research company, and compiled through a telephone survey conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,200 likely Latino voters. The respondents were given the option of completing the survey in English and Spanish. 

The margin of error for the poll is +/- 2.7 percent with 95 percent confidence.

For the full results of the national Fox News Latino poll of likely Latino voters click here.

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Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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