The GOP's Hispanic Problem

As immigration becomes a flash point in the Republican presidential primary, Hispanic activists fear the party is squandering its future chances

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LAS VEGAS -- It was your typical sedate panel of Republican talking heads -- until local Hispanic activists in the audience rose up in revolt.

"The Democrats are kicking our behinds out there!" one man shouted. "The Republican leadership has to do something, has to send a message to our community!"

A woman pleaded, "What should be the message on immigration? Please, give us a talking point!" Another woman pointed to the rest of the audience to make the point that the conference hadn't sought Hispanic participation: "How many Latinos from Las Vegas are sitting here? How many?"

It was a remarkable scene, and a perfect illustration of the bind the GOP is in.

Its presidential candidates increasingly are demagoguing the immigration issue to stoke the passions of the overwhelmingly white base. But in the process, Hispanic Republicans fear, they are killing their chances at general-election victory by alienating the fastest-growing group of American voters.

The panel, a Thursday session of the Western Republican Leadership Conference that kicked off with Tuesday's debate, assembled five prominent national Hispanic Republicans, who were full of feel-good talk about tapping Latino voters' natural conservative inclinations.

Led by Manny Rosales, a former George W. Bush administration appointee and Republican National Committee official, the panelists paid airy tribute to Hispanics' entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic and love of family.

Rosario Marin, who served as U.S. Treasurer under Bush, said her own story -- a Mexican immigrant who couldn't speak English when she came to the U.S. as a teenager -- was testament to the power of the American dream of economic opportunity. But as the economy has faltered -- a phenomenon she pinned on President Obama -- that dream has dimmed, she said.

"If Latinos just vote their values, vote what they believe, they would vote Republican," Marin said.

But the panelists didn't ignore the reality: The Republican Party cannot afford to cede the Hispanic vote to the Democrats.

George W. Bush got over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, Rosales noted, while John McCain barely cleared 30 percent in 2008. "If we don't do 45 percent at least, we're in trouble, not only for this cycle but also for the future," he said.

An avalanche of statistics backs him up. Fifty thousand Hispanics turn 18 every month. They are the fastest growing group nationally, with an especially large presence in the Western swing states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Though historically they haven't always turned out to vote, that's changing. Strong Hispanic turnout is credited for some of Democrats' few victories in 2010 -- Sens. Michael Bennet in Colorado, Harry Reid in Nevada and Barbara Boxer in California, as well as California Gov. Jerry Brown. If the trend continues, Republicans can forget about California for good, and Democrats could one day be competitive in Texas.

But Democrats don't own the Hispanic vote. "Latinos are really angry at President Obama because he pandered to them," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Washington-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "He said he was going to pass immigration reform as a priority in his first year." Instead, he used his Democratic majority in Congress to push through health-care reform and economic stimulus -- and never got around to immigration.

Aguilar found it necessary to establish his conservative credentials before getting into the awkward message he had to deliver -- that the Republican Party's stance and rhetoric on immigration are turning off Hispanics.

Aguilar is another Bush administration appointee and, he swore, a strong conservative on fiscal and social issues. "I'm not a RINO," he said -- a Republican In Name Only. The truly free-market position on immigration, he said, would be to allow more of it.

"Our nation has a need for foreign workers, and if American employers cannot find American workers to do certain types of jobs, big government should not be telling them they cannot recruit and hire the foreign workers they need," he said. "But we have to create the mechanisms for foreign workers to come here legally." That means a guest worker program and probably also some kind of legalization for immigrants currently in the country illegally.

That, however, is not something any of the presidential candidates are advocating.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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