When it comes to courting Hispanic voters, Republicans have a tricky time threading the needle on immigration. Rather than reach out to Hispanics by softening their hard-line tone - at least during the primaries - the conservative wing of the party has embraced harsh immigration policies. Republicans do not count Latinos among their key constituents like Democrats, so tactically, they may be better off using anti-immigrant rhetoric to fire up their base even though they will need a modicum of Hispanic votes come November. But today, this disregard for the issue puts Hispanic conservatives in a tight spot: get on board or clash with the party.
In retrospect, two events at CPAC showed this tension in spades. On the one hand, the gathering saw the launch the first conservative Hispanic Super PAC; however, not long after that, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the man widely considered the architect of Alabama and Arizona’s tough “self-deportation” laws, drew cheers at a panel on immigration.
The Super Pac’s launch came on Saturday afternoon, and took place in one of the small conference rooms at the hotel hosting CPAC. About 50 people showed up for the opening presentation. There was a cash bar, but free cupcakes. The main pitch was a PowerPoint presentation on how Hispanic Vote Super PAC was going to use social media to connect Hispanic voters with conservative ideas. It sounded so much like a grassroots educational operation that one audience-member asked why they were a Super PAC. They responded that they had been advised to register as such. Would they support any candidates? They couldn’t say.
Balbina Cuellar Caldwell, originally from Mexico, is an educator who plans to do work with the Super PAC. “I believe conservative ideas are the future,” she said. But when asked about her Party’s stance on immigration, she sighed. It’s a complicated issue, she said, not wanting to go into it. But at least on the Dream Act there was no question. “I totally support the Dream Act,” she said, adding that she actually worked with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch on the legislation years ago. Fabiola Clausen of Columbia, another attendee, responded without hesitation that she supported it “100 percent.”
Juan Torres, who founded the Latino American Tea Party in Florida over a year ago was at the event, passing out business cards. A circular pin on his jacket read “No Mas Obama.” When asked about immigration, the Ecuadorian-born activist said he doesn’t agree with extremes on either side. He’s comfortable with Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, but noted that “some people need the chance to stay” and that we need “compassion.” Torres is unsure how many supporters his group’s listserv has, but he guesses it might be around 100.
The next morning, four panelists met in the hotel’s main ballroom to discuss immigration. The first panelist, Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute, argued immigration was actually a boon to the economy and should be encouraged. This elicited boos from the audience.
Then the rock star of the panel Kris Kobach introduced himself to the crowd as one of the authors of the “Arizona and Alabama illegal immigration laws” and was greeted with loud cheers. Kobach promoted his legislation in those states as job creation measure. “If you really want to create a job and you don’t want to use words like ‘shovel-ready’ and ‘do it through a government program,’ I have an idea for you,” Kobach said. “If you want to create a job for a U.S. citizen tomorrow, deport an illegal alien today.”
Hispanic Vote’s co-founder and executive director Laura Ramirez Drain told TPM she couldn’t comment on Kobach, the panel, or immigration at all because her organization wasn’t going to talk about it. Drain cites abortion, low taxes, and small businesses as issues “very deep in the Hispanic community.” Because she is reaching out to citizens, she says, immigration doesn’t concern them as much. Drain also spoke of the CPAC launch as a success. One hundred and fifty people came over the three-hour open house event, she said, “People were happy. They loved the cupcakes.”
Caldwell was a little more open on how conservatives Hispanics could engage the immigration issue: “the education goes both ways.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.