Immigration cloud hangs over the biggest conservative confab of the year

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Mario Lopez, the president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, was a speaker on one of the most closely watched panels of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — "Immigration: Can conservatives reach a consensus?"

The answer to that question is no — at least not now — judging from the amount of pushback he received on Thursday after telling a story about a business owner who had told Lopez he'll never become a Republican.

Lopez recounted how the man, a second-generation immigrant, told him that Republicans "didn't want us here."


"That's not true!" one attendee in the audience said, before he was warned that continued interruption would mean an ejection.

CPAC, which runs here until Saturday, displays the Republican conundrum on immigration in a nutshell. Some self-avowed conservatives urge introspection and a different approach to the issue. But they can't seem to get past the skepticism from the vast majority of the base, and they end up in a back-and-forth about which one is actually "conservative."

"I would say that I'm for immigration reform because I'm conservative," Alfonso Aguilar, another panelist and the executive director of the American Principles Project, told Fusion in an interview.

"The problem is that we've been boxed in within the conservative movement."

The current battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security has also made for an awkward situation for prospective Republican presidential candidates at CPAC. Eager to prove the party's ability to govern to a larger audience, the candidates threw out plenty of red meat for a base that wants President Barack Obama's executive actions defunded.


The Senate is set to pass a so-called "clean" bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security through the end of the year. But many conservative members of Congress have argued that the fight over DHS funding gives Republicans their best chance to address the executive actions. It isn't yet clear whether House Speaker John Boehner is prepared to give in.

"We're still waiting to see what they do," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina) told Fusion of the Senate. "I applaud my leadership for standing firm."


"Congress must use the power of the purse," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said here Thursday. Lee emphasized, however, that he was not running for president.

One senator who might run for president, however — conservative firebrand Ted Cruz of Texas — also urged House Republicans to stand firm, much in the same way he did during the 2013 budget fight that centered on funding for the Affordable Care Act.


"Unfortunately, Republican leadership is cutting a deal with Harry Reid and the Democrats to give in on executive amnesty," Cruz told a fired-up audience that hung on every word he said.

Another GOP presidential hopeful, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was more nuanced. Interviewed on stage by conservative host Laura Ingraham, Christie twice dodged questions about immigration, navigating to his record on education and cutting taxes.


On the panel, Aguilar and Lopez urged a more proactive approach toward dealing with immigration reform. Aguilar said that it would be a "failure" if Republicans failed to pass any related legislation now that they have full control of Congress.

Lopez brought props in the form of flow charts. He displayed the charts to emphasize what he characterized as a broken legal immigration system in need of overhaul.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

"It reminds me of a game of 'Chutes and Ladders,'" Lopez said. "You're going along and then nope, you landed on the wrong square. You have to go back to the beginning."


"It's almost impossible to immigrate legally," he added.

But it was still unconvincing to many conservatives in attendance at the panel. The first question leveled at Aguilar and Lopez, even after Lopez's elaborate presentation: What's really broken with it?


On Friday, as the Department of Homeland Security is set to partially shut down over the congressional standoff, CPAC's opening will include an address from Ingraham, who has railed against Obama's "amnesty." Following her will be Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), another potential GOP presidential hopeful, who has shifted his position on immigration to the right with the help of the influence of Ingraham and others.

Sooner or later, Aguilar said, Republicans will have to accept that immigration reform is going to happen. But he fears it may be after the growing electorate of Latinos moves further and further away from the party.


"The question is, when are Republicans going to get it? Is it going to be sooner or later?" he told Fusion. "Are we going to have to lose a couple of presidential elections to understand that? I'm hoping that we can learn that lesson soon."

Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.

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