For all the camaraderie demonstrated during the 37th annual Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend, just beneath the surface lay an unresolved debate about whether conservatives can truly embrace Latino immigrants in their ranks.
Beyond the Marriott Wardman Park ballroom, where dozens of Republican leaders gave speech after thunderous speech, the conference hosted numerous forums on immigration — some with diametrically opposed themes.
In doing so, CPAC highlighted a dichotomy in how conservatives view immigration reform and immigrants themselves.
Heritage Foundation fellow Robert Rector, a proponent of tougher penalties on illegal immigration, characterized the split as a divide between “common-sense conservatives and open-border libertarians.”
Rector, who spoke on two separate panels at CPAC, said amnesty and guest worker programs are problematic because they open access to U.S. ballot boxes. Immigrants in turn vote for so-called entitlement programs, he said.
“There’s nothing evil about the immigrant. They’re just acting out their natural intent,” he said. “They’re going to vote for free stuff.”
The antipathy toward immigrants was further apparent in comments from ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who is running against Sen. John McCain for Arizona’s GOP Senate nomination. Hayworth appeared at a Thursday night screening of “Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration,” introducing the film and saying it proves that U.S. immigration policy needs to change drastically.
“The problem in Washington is that so many people — including my opponent — view this as a political problem to be managed instead of seeing what really is going on,” said Hayworth, who was featured in the film. “This is an invasion that must be stopped.”
Edward Lynch, a Republican Congressional candidate in Florida, said on another panel that there’s nothing wrong with legal immigration but that many illegal immigrants are criminals and should be deported after a second offense.
“It’s killing our schools, it’s killing our economy, it’s killing our health care,” he said. “It needs to be controlled.”
But others in the GOP said such sentiments are detrimental to the health of the conservative movement and pointed to the fact that more than 60 percent of Latinos voted for President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential contest.
A University of Texas study found that from 1976 to 1996, 68 percent of Latino voters favored Democrats. But in the 2004 presidential election, President George W. Bush garnered more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, which was widely believed to be instrumental in his defeat of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Linda Chavez, the highest-ranking woman in President Ronald Reagan’s White House and now chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank devoted to issues of race and ethnicity, told Rector during an immigration panel they shared that she respectfully disagrees with his ideas. She said she understands such language is borne of frustration about a broken immigration system, but she added that it needs to cease.
“I want to see conservatives triumph in the United States,” Chavez said. “If you share that view, then we better begin to figure out a way to talk about immigration that does not alienate the fastest-growing demographic in the United States.”
Chavez tried to debunk what she called myths that foster resentment toward immigrants — they don’t assimilate and they feed on welfare and Social Security, for instance.
On a Thursday panel called “The Rise of Latino Conservatism,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he was taken aback by assertions he has heard that Latino immigrants are lazy and weaken Western culture. Latinos actually share values that are staples of conservative campaigns, he added: They’re overwhelmingly Christian, pro-business, and oppose gay marriage and abortion rights.
“But you can’t talk to someone from the immigrant community, threaten to deport their relative and then ask them to vote with you because you’re pro-life,” he said. “Some conservatives and some Republicans have used harsh and insulting rhetoric that has chased away Hispanic voters unnecessarily.”
Panelist Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, which advocates for limited government, said a conservative majority is impossible unless the movement embraces Latinos.
“We have a problem,” he said. “It’s incredibly damaging when you hear people who agree with you but won’t vote for your candidates because they think you don’t want them.”
He said people such as former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) are culpable in disaffecting the Latino vote.
“No one crosses 200, 300 miles in the desert because they think it’s fun or because they want to spit on America,” he said. “If we don’t have enough confidence in our ideas to talk to people who are looking for freedom and opportunity, then I don’t know why anyone like that would call themselves a conservative.”
Andeliz Castillo, a spokeswoman for House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), said Republicans in the House are working to build relationships in the Latino community so they know anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t the party’s message.
“We are working on becoming more accessible by exchanging information and creating an honest dialogue with Hispanic leaders around the country,” she said.
Castillo said Latino outreach has been a top priority for the Republican Conference and that Members are frequently booked for interviews on Spanish language television, have their opinion pieces published in Spanish language newspapers and have participated in several national conferences with Latino business leaders.
Pence’s office is not the only one to ramp up efforts to reach out to Latinos. Senate Republicans, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have all added resources to make sure their message is reaching potential voters.
Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski’s (Alaska) staff held its first Hispanic Task Force meeting last month “with three dozen prominent Hispanic Republican communicators and grass-roots activists and Senate Republican staffers,” Murkowski spokeswoman Christine Mangi said.
“Based on information gleaned from the task force, specific action items were developed to help Members improve their ability to reach Hispanics in their state,” she said.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said that in some cases, Republicans haven’t even tried to attract Hispanic voters.
“What we have done in the past is not shown up,” Price said. “President Bush showed that if [Republicans] reach out we can compete” for the Hispanic vote.