For all the camaraderie demonstrated during the 37th annual Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend, just beneath the surface lay an unresolved debate about whether conservatives can truly embrace Latino immigrants in their ranks.
Beyond the Marriott Wardman Park ballroom, where dozens of Republican leaders gave speech after thunderous speech, the conference hosted numerous forums on immigration some with diametrically opposed themes.
In doing so, CPAC highlighted a dichotomy in how conservatives view immigration reform and immigrants themselves.
Heritage Foundation fellow Robert Rector, a proponent of tougher penalties on illegal immigration, characterized the split as a divide between common-sense conservatives and open-border libertarians.
Rector, who spoke on two separate panels at CPAC, said amnesty and guest worker programs are problematic because they open access to U.S. ballot boxes. Immigrants in turn vote for so-called entitlement programs, he said.
Theres nothing evil about the immigrant. Theyre just acting out their natural intent, he said. Theyre going to vote for free stuff.
The antipathy toward immigrants was further apparent in comments from ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who is running against Sen. John McCain for Arizonas GOP Senate nomination. Hayworth appeared at a Thursday night screening of Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration, introducing the film and saying it proves that U.S. immigration policy needs to change drastically.
The problem in Washington is that so many people including my opponent view this as a political problem to be managed instead of seeing what really is going on, said Hayworth, who was featured in the film. This is an invasion that must be stopped.
Edward Lynch, a Republican Congressional candidate in Florida, said on another panel that theres nothing wrong with legal immigration but that many illegal immigrants are criminals and should be deported after a second offense.
Its killing our schools, its killing our economy, its killing our health care, he said. It needs to be controlled.
But others in the GOP said such sentiments are detrimental to the health of the conservative movement and pointed to the fact that more than 60 percent of Latinos voted for President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential contest.
A University of Texas study found that from 1976 to 1996, 68 percent of Latino voters favored Democrats. But in the 2004 presidential election, President George W. Bush garnered more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, which was widely believed to be instrumental in his defeat of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Linda Chavez, the highest-ranking woman in President Ronald Reagans White House and now chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank devoted to issues of race and ethnicity, told Rector during an immigration panel they shared that she respectfully disagrees with his ideas. She said she understands such language is borne of frustration about a broken immigration system, but she added that it needs to cease.
I want to see conservatives triumph in the United States, Chavez said. If you share that view, then we better begin to figure out a way to talk about immigration that does not alienate the fastest-growing demographic in the United States.
Chavez tried to debunk what she called myths that foster resentment toward immigrants they dont assimilate and they feed on welfare and Social Security, for instance.