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“We need to show up not just at election time, but all the time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hispanic Democrats are looking to cement their gains, using immigration policy as a wedge issue. Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus late last month announced plans for a 17-city “listening tour” to build popular support for fixing the nation’s “broken immigration system.”

Caucus members say the tour is designed to pressure the Obama administration and Congress to pass a major immigration overhaul bill this year despite the competing claims for health care, education and energy.

“There’s always going to be something else we need to do,” said Pedro R. Pierluisi, Democratic delegate for Puerto Rico in the House. “The time to act is now.”

Mr. Nadler has emerged as perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Republican stance on immigration, and in turn, he has attracted a number of critics within the party. Some say he overstates the political fallout among Hispanics, while others say he effectively embraces “amnesty” for millions of illegal residents who broke the country’s laws.

“Nadler thinks conservatives should conform their principles to electoral realities,” City Journal contributing editor Heather Mac Donald wrote recently in the National Review. “I’ll stick with principles.”

At the recent gathering, Mr. Nadler argued that blanket opposition to immigration reform and a refusal to disavow mass deportation will consign the Republican Party to permanent minority status.

The backlash among legal Hispanic voters to the party’s policies to date “has destroyed conservative prospects in the Southwest, weakened them in the West, and wiped them out in New England,” he said.

Former Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen told the Capitol Hill forum the immigration issue had to be handled in a “rational, thoughtful way,” but said the party would do better to focus on economic and social issues as a way to woo Hispanic voters. But he said the party as a whole must continue to insist on securing the country’s borders against new illegal immigrants before any discussion on how to deal with illegals already here.

Mr. Nadler countered that Hispanic voters remain focused on the mass-deportation question, undercutting the attraction the Republican Party enjoys on other issues.

“All the other issues are inoperative for us now,” he said. “As long as mass deportation is on the table and in our platform, the Democrats are going to beat us.”