NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Pro-immigration reform advocates said Thursday that Latinos could become a future source for Republican votes and urged fellow conservatives to push forward on the issue.
While Donald Trump spoke at CPAC’s main stage, denouncing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for wanting “to let everyone in” and warning those in attendance that immigrants will take their jobs, a panel of immigration reform advocates argued that there’s a conservative case for moving forward on the issue in one of the adjacent rooms.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said immigration reform would actually create “good paying jobs for working-class Americans.”
“Immigrants come here to do jobs that Americans don’t want or jobs where we can’t find Americans of working age to do them,” he said.
Helen Krieble, president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, said a large guest worker program could be a first step to reform the nation’s immigration system.
“The right guest worker program should be market based, not government quota based. It should be implemented by the private sector, not government bureaucrats, and it should be paid by user fees, not tax dollars,” Krieble said.
She spoke about her organization’s “Red Card” guest worker plan, which would provide unlimited guest work visas to foreigners to use on a short-term basis.
Krieble said the immigration reform debate has been polarized into two approaches: “citizenship for all people living illegally in the United States, or taking no action at all.”
“Both approaches are wrong. Citizenship is the wrong approach because it devalues the very concept of citizenship. Being American is understanding and pledging allegiance to our core principles. You can’t be an American if you don’t know what that means,” she said. “Taking no action at all forces us into the trap of Obama’s rhetoric about do-nothing Republicans with no ideas who only obstruct progress.”
Derrick Morgan, vice president of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, said granting a path to legal status to undocumented immigrants would reward “illegal behavior.”
“Granting legal status, or amnesty if you prefer, is bad policy that is unfair, costly, and it won’t work,” Morgan said.
Morgan said passing amnesty tells immigrants who came to the country legally “it doesn’t even matter” that they followed the rules.
Aguilar disagreed with Morgan, saying that the party’s base “want us to lead and legislate.”
“Conservatives need to address immigration and they need to do it now,” he said. “If Republicans don’t deal constructively with the issue of immigration before the 2016 election, whoever the Republican candidate is [will] have a very difficult time, even an impossible time, getting enough Latino votes to win the White House.”
Aguilar said Hispanics share many of the same values as conservatives, including a distrust of a strong central government.
“Latino voters are the Reagan Democrats of this day,” Aguilar said.
Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a Hispanic evangelical group, warned that the Hispanic community is becoming alienated by Republican rhetoric much like African Americans who “left the party of Lincoln due partly to rhetoric on civil rights.”
Cortes also took issue with Morgan’s use of the word “amnesty.”
“If you look it up in the dictionary it means forgiveness at no cost,” Cortes said.
He said if someone comes forward and admits to have committed a crime and has to “do recompense,” as Republicans have proposed to require of immigrants who are currently illegally here, then the word would not apply.
When asked whether they supported comprehensive reform or a piecemeal approach, all the panelists agreed to a certain extent that immigration reform should be implemented gradually.
Morgan, however, said Republicans should not even be focusing on immigration reform until President Obama shows that he will uphold the law.
“I respectfully disagree with the policy of legalization with or without citizenship,” he said.
Instead, Morgan said he favored a piecemeal approach, starting with the less controversial pieces and making sure they are enforced.
He noted that the Obama administration has chosen not to enforce certain sections of some laws in the past, including several parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
“Why would you expect [this administration] to enforce any new laws?” he said.
Morgan said that because amnesty is an unpopular issue it would have to pass along with other provisions, such as border security and workplace enforcement.
The panel attracted criticism from Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who issued a statement attacking the American Conservative Union – CPAC’s top organizer – for including speakers that support the same agenda as Democrats on immigration.
“You have to wonder when a self-described conservative organization stacks an immigration panel with amnesty advocates,” Smith said in a statement. “For the second year in a row, CPAC has featured a panel where all but one speaker supports the agenda of liberal Democrats and the liberal national media.”