GOP leaders have decided it's time their party surmounts the immigration issue, embraces legalization and moves on, and rank-and-file conservatives are warming to that stance — though they still fear their leaders will sell out conservative principles for political gain.
Activists gathered for the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference said Thursday they fear a repeat of the last time the country granted an amnesty, in 1986, when the legalization happened, but the government did not follow through on stricter enforcement.
"The grass roots don't want to see a political fix," said Kevin Williams, of Trenton, N.J. "They want to see an actual comprehensive fix to this, but what everybody at the grass-roots level is worried about is that they are going to get sold out."
CPAC pushed immigration to the forefront of its three-day conference, hosting a panel on the opening day Thursday that featured party leaders saying the issue is ripe.
Rep. Raul R. Labrador, Idaho Republican, said it is "imperative" that the GOP move on the issue this year, but he won his biggest round of applause when he said that does not mean granting a speedy amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants.
"It would be a travesty, in my opinion, to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States," Mr. Labrador said during a panel discussion titled "Respecting Families and the Rule of Law: A Lasting Immigration Policy."
That panel was stacked with advocates for legalization of illegal immigrants — a stance that until recently has been a decidedly minority position within the GOP.
Speaking at a separate event, Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official who runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said immigration is a "gateway" issue for many Hispanic voters.
"If we don't get the immigration issue right, they are just not going to listen to us," Mr. Aguilar said.
He said, though, that conservatives must also do a better job of educating Hispanics about how the conservative agenda can improve their quality of life.
Some of the activists in attendance also said that immigration should be a priority, and that they are also willing to legalize some illegal immigrants. But they stopped short of embracing a full path to citizenship -- especially if that allows them to leapfrog in front of people who have waited legally in line.
"I think we need a solution that incentivizes people to respect the rule of law, which they haven't done under the current system," said Cal Davenport, a 24-year-old from Michigan. "On the other hand, we need to take care of the people who are here and showing them that by coming forward in a system that allows them to work here and maybe eventually earn citizenship, that complying with the law is beneficial."
Activists wrestled with both the human and legal sides of the immigration situation.
"We are a nation of laws and I think amnesty would be unfair all the way around," said Nancy Schultz, a Florida resident who declined to give her age. "If they can figure out an honestly workable and fair way to create an earned path to legal status, I don't think conservatives would be up in arms about that. We cannot send 11 million people packing. It is just not realistic. We need to get into the real world here."
The gathering gave conservatives another chance to review the 2012 election, where President Obama rode to victory over GOP nominee Mitt Romney in part because of support from Hispanic voters.
Exit polls showed that Mr. Obama won the demographic by a 71 percent to 27 percent margin — building on the 67 percent to 31 percent edge he held over Sen. John McCain in 2008.
The 2012 outcome fueled a new sense of urgency within Republican ranks that the party must address the issue in order to broaden their appeal with Hispanics, and stay relevant in national elections.
"The handwriting is on the wall," Republican pollster Whit Ayres, another CPAC speaker, said in his post-election analysis. "Until Republican candidates figure out how to perform better among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Asians, Republican presidential contenders will have an extraordinarily difficult time winning presidential elections from this point forward."
With that as a backdrop, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on Congress last month to carve out a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers — illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. at young age -- making him the highest ranking Republican leader to embrace legalization of a broad category of people living in the U.S. illegally.
And a "Gang of Eight" senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, floated a framework that would grant the nation's more than 11 million illegal immigrants some sort of legal status, and offer them a chance to earn citizenship by paying fines, learning English and staying out of trouble.
In exchange, the government would have to strengthen border security and enforcement — a must have in the eyes of most grass-roots conservatives.
But Mr. Rubio shied away from immigration when he spoke from the main stage at CPAC on Thursday — possibly signaling how contentious the issue remains within conservative circles.
Indeed, former Rep. Tom Tancredo told The Washington Times this week that Republicans are misreading the election results.
The Colorado Republican said that Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney did not appeal to Hispanics because they were "lousy" candidates and that the party is shooting itself in the foot by teaming up with the likes of Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles E. Schumer of New York, two of the Democrats in the "Gang of Eight."
"It is only the elites in the party who are leading the parade, but if they were to look behind them, they would find no one was there," said Mr. Tancredo, who ran for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2008.
Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Times that the public does not trust the "political class" to follow through on plans to strengthen border security after it has failed to enforce the immigration laws already on the books.
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