Conservatives' struggles with immigration reform were on full display on Thursday at CPAC, as activists listened politely — but offered no warm embrace — to arguments that the American right should support a pathway to legalization or citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Several members of a late-morning panel in immigration argued that supporting immigration reform was inherently conservative, and would help stem the tide of Latinos voting increasingly for Democrats in recent elections.
But the only major applause line of the panel came after Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Puerto Rican-American, decried the notion of allowing the undocumented immigrants currently in the United States a pathway to citizenship.
"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," he said.
The topic of immigration reform has long been a dicey one for conservatives. President George W. Bush had sought an immigration reform law in 2007, but it was felled largely by conservatives in his own party who decried the proposal as "amnesty." The influence of that uprising reverberated throughout the GOP, as former supporters of immigration reform moved rightward on the issue.
But following repeated losses in national elections — fueled, in part, by the growing influence of the Latino vote, and its increasing support for Democrats — Republican leaders have called for revisiting the issue of immigration to help stymie Hispanic voters' drift toward Democrats.
"If we're going to stop the tide against secular socialism, we need more allies," said the Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
"Every single month for the next 20 years, 50,000 Hispanic youngsters will turn 18-years-old, and become eligible to vote," he said, hoping to illustrate the inevitable, growing influence of Latino voters. "If we hope to have a vibrant, center-right coalition, we'd better reach out aggressively."
Added Jennifer Korn, of the American Action Network: "Right now what we have is de-facto amnesty, and that's just not acceptable … You can be conservative, and be for immigration reform."
But the crowd full of conservative activists offered no sense of a groundswell for immigration reform along the lines of the type of law currently being drafted in the Senate. That law, which has been cobbled together by a bipartisan group of senators, calls for stricter border enforcement, but also a path to earned citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrations estimated to be currently in the U.S.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of that bipartisan group who's helped sell the plan to conservatives, will speak later Thursday afternoon.