BOSTON — Republican leaders spent a good chunk of their summer meeting talking up their revamped Hispanic outreach efforts and then turned around and approved a resolution that could make it harder for the party to close its deficit with the nation’s fastest-growing minority group.
The Republican National Committee passed a resolution on the third and final day of its meeting that touched on some of the thorniest issues in the immigration debate, calling for the completion of a double fence along the southwestern border and saying that most Americans “oppose any form of amnesty that would propose a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.”
“That is very bad language that only alienates Latinos even more,” said Alfonso Aguilar, who ran the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ office of citizenship under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Aguilar, who now serves as executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said the wording could reinforce the notion that Republicans are tone-deaf on the subject.
The party, Mr. Aguilar said, could learn from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who says some illegal immigrants should have the chance to go to the back of the line and through the normalization process.
“What we oppose is a special path to citizenship,” Mr. Aguilar said.
Polls show that Hispanic voters support a pathway to citizenship. For President Obama and congressional Democrats, the path to citizenship is nonnegotiable as a part of immigration reform. Republicans are divided on the issue.
The RNC resolution also calls for Congress to create work permits for the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own and for foreign nationals living in the U.S. who are working and have not broken other laws.
Before the vote, Ada M. Fisher, national committeewoman from North Carolina, said the RNC should not support the creation of guest-worker permits because that amounts to a path to citizenship.
Bruce Ash, national committeeman from Arizona who helped author the plan, countered that “this resolution is not a pathway to citizenship.”
The RNC-endorsed systems would allow some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors the chance to obtain work permits that must be renewed every five years as long as they prove they are employed or attending school. Foreign nationals would have to renew their permits every two years.
The RNC weighed in on the issue in March when it released a postelection Growth and Opportunity Project report that said the party must be careful to “craft a tone that takes into consideration the unique perspective of the Hispanic community” and that the party must “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”
Since then, the immigration debate has raged on Capitol Hill, where the Democrat-controlled Senate passed, with the help of 14 Republicans, a bill that would bolster border security before granting some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Sally Bradshaw, one of the authors of the RNC report, has signed on as an adviser to Americans for a Conservative Direction, the Mark Zuckerberg-backed organization pressing for immigration reform and a path to citizenship.
RNC members here acknowledged that the immigration resolution could cause the party some political heartburn.
“When you were a kid, your mother would say it is not what you said, it is how you say it that counts, and sometimes we are not very eloquent in how we say things,” said Ron Kaufman, an RNC member from Massachusetts.
Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire, said he voted against the resolution because it could be “misinterpreted.”
“I would have worded it more carefully to accurately convey that we are against a blanket ‘amnesty’ but that we have faith that our Republicans in Congress are not creating one,” Mr. Duprey said. “The way I view it is that because of all the hoops someone has to go through: learn the language, pay taxes, have a job, not commit a crime, that it is not amnesty. Amnesty suggests forgiveness without consequences. Here it is a pretty tough road.”
Republicans want to avoid a repeat of the Immigration Reform and Control Act that President Reagan signed in 1986. The act granted amnesty to millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. Elected officials now are struggling to find common ground on how to handle the estimated 11 million illegal residents.
The issue dogged Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, where he tacked hard to the right in the Republican primary and embraced the notion of “self-deportation.”
Mr. Obama issued an executive order months before the election that said his administration would stop deporting young illegal immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. as children by illegal immigrants.
Mr. Obama went on to win 71 percent of the Hispanic vote four years after capturing 67 percent of the Hispanic vote against Republican rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008.
On Friday, Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry cringed when he was asked about the language of the RNC resolution.
“The Republican Party is having a debate right now, our elected officials are having a debate, not everybody agrees, but there are people out there trying to fix it and that is the positive thing and I am going to let our elected officials figure that out,” Mr. Curry said.
Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said the resolution represented the competing views in the party.
“The key is hitting the high points and the high points are that that resolution no longer calls for the automatic deportation of folks who are here unlawfully,” Mr. Munisteri said.
Asked whether the “amnesty” clause could hurt the party’s outreach efforts, Mr. Munisteri said it would not “as long as it is made clear that we are not opposing people getting citizenship by going to the back of the line.”
“Messaging is as important as the message, or people won’t ever hear your message,” he said. “If you just say we will never make people citizens under any circumstance because they are from a certain country or something like that, then that would hurt the cause. So, how you explain this is very important.”