Hispanic House Republicans say the GOP must tread cautiously on immigration so as not to reverse the gains the party has begun to make with Hispanic voters on other issues.
In a series of interviews with Roll Call, the four Hispanic GOP Members said that while immigration may not be the most important issue among Hispanics, few issues have done more to tarnish the GOP brand with those voters.
"Part of the reason we have done so poorly with Hispanics was that there are a number of people who really went out of their way not to solve these issues but to stir them up," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said. "Fortunately it's just a couple people. ... But I think a majority of the Conference understands that not only do we have to secure the borders but we also have to deal with the reality" of illegal immigrants who are already here.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who chose not to sign the "Contract With America" in 1994 because of language that would have cut off benefits to legal immigrants, said the party has become more welcoming to Hispanics since he came to Congress in 1992.
The Florida Republican said the key to keeping the immigration debate civil is to focus on specific reforms Members are proposing.
"It's a minority that believes that we should become the kind of country where the agencies of the federal government are systematically breaking into the homes of people throughout this country to find their legal status and to deport them if they are undocumented," Lincoln Diaz-Balart said.
Instead, he said that consensus points such as border security and the use of employer verification technology should be focal points of the Republican message to offset the sometimes harsh rhetoric of some in the party.
"Leadership needs to talk more about this," he said.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said, "We have a responsibility as politicians, no matter what party you are, to lower the rhetoric and look for a solution. "
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) added, "You can have a very tough immigration stance, and still get lots of Hispanic votes."
Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart said Republican leadership frequently consults with them on how to address the immigration issue.
"I can tell you when immigration issues come up they do contact us, they do talk to us. Does our point of view always prevail? Of course not," he said. "They are sensitive to the issue, and I think that was not necessarily always the case."
Ros-Lehtinen agreed, saying that she and the Diaz-Balarts have advised leaders against using the issue as a political tool in floor tactics, to avoid reinforcing the stereotype that Republicans are anti-immigrant.
"If every motion to recommit is on these grounds, they would give credence to perception that Republicans are anti-immigrant and that Republicans are anti-any group that didn't travel here on the Mayflower," she said.
After losing the Hispanic vote by double digits in 2008, Republicans have scrambled to beef up their resources to make sure their message is reaching potential Hispanic voters.
"Let's be perfectly honest. President Obama would not be in the White House was it not for the Hispanic vote," Mario Diaz Balart said. "I think there is a clear realization from the Republican leadership of not only the importance of the Hispanic community politically, but also there's more understanding of some of the other issues" that are important to them such as health care, the economy and small-business issues.
Ros-Lehtinen said some Republican Members have been "shy" about reaching out to the Hispanics in their districts because of their hesitance to discuss immigration.
"Hispanics are more than just a one-issue community," Ros-Lehtinen said. "That is a very myopic way of looking at a very mixed demographic."
Nunes said immigration has become a major problem for Democrats in the past year since the Obama administration has failed to address the issue.
"When you have one side of the aisle, the Democrats, basically promising the world when in reality they are going to do nothing, and if you have some of our folks raising up the rhetoric, that's not helpful either," he said.
"The only conversation about immigration is, frankly, unfortunately, is political pandering, and it's really sad, and I think now you are starting to see the Hispanic community react," Mario Diaz-Balart said.
While the Members said immigration reform remains a critical agenda item, they doubted comprehensive reform would be at the forefront of the Republican agenda in 2010.
"This is an issue that is very hot. I'm really worried for our country," Nunes said. "With high unemployment and this immigration problem creating this divisiveness within our country, [it] is very dangerous. I'm really worried about it."
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who is retiring at the end of the 111th Congress, said a small, bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working hard on a solution, and he is confident reform will pass someday.
"We are doing everything possible," he said. "I'm convinced that we are going to have a centrist, center-right piece of legislation passed by Congress. I don't know when."
Correction: May 17, 2010
The article incorrectly stated why Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) chose not to sign the "Contract With America" in 1994. He did not sign it because of language that would have cut off benefits to legal immigrants.