If you were searching for an honest, relevant discussion about immigration reform or minority outreach at the Conservative Political Action Conference, you had to look hard.
The lineup on Thursday in National Harbor, Maryland featured a gamut of contenders for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2016, including Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Ted Cruz. All of them have played a significant role in the immigration debate over the past year. But none wanted to talk about the issue that party strategists believe could help repair broken ties with Latino and Asian voters.
The only major speaker to even bring up the topic was Donald Trump. He cautioned Republicans not to back immigration reform, saying that as many as 30 million legalized immigrants would steal American jobs and vote only for Democrats.
“With immigration, you better be smart and you better be tough and they’re taking your jobs and you better be careful,” Trump said.
Discounting Trump, it’s not surprising that immigration didn’t come up during the potential contenders’ speeches.
Russia’s foray into Ukraine, Obamacare’s struggles, and Hillary Clinton provided ample fodder to fire up the activists at CPAC. For GOP politicians looking to ingratiate themselves to the base, there’s little upside of bringing up an issue on which Republicans are deeply divided.
“The momentum did die down after last year, so you’re not going to have be it as significant [an issue],” Sam Rosado, a conservative blogger and attorney said.
That’s a shame, because conservative grassroots and youth activists largely missed out on some important conversations about the movement’s future.
Before Trump spoke, a panel on minority outreach was held in the main convention hall. But the event was sparsely attended.
Here’s a photo of a more-than-half empty room during a panel on minority outreach.
The only panel to focus on the immigration issue was held in a smaller room off the main stage. It featured a respectful, well-informed discussion between supporters and opponents of legalizing the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But the event was held at the same time as a reception with Trump and a panel on marijuana legalization, and only about 50 people showed up.
Derrick Morgan of the Heritage Foundation decried legalization as “amnesty” and said that the best path for Republicans is to pass no bill during President Obama’s term. Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles argued that Republican can’t wait until 2016 to tackle the issue.
If they hold off, the GOP nominee for president is “going to have a very difficult time, even an impossible time getting enough Latino support to win the White House,” Aguilar said.
If that message doesn’t get across to the party, many fear that the GOP could repeat its mistakes and lose out on Hispanic voters for good.
“It needs to be elevated only because we see Latino voters go down because of the immigration debate,” said Steve Monks, a Durham, N.C.-based attorney who attended the panel. “We need to own this issue. We need to put the Democrats back in the backseat and say, ‘This is our issue. You shut up.’ We could have done that with Civil Rights back in the 1960s, but we didn’t.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.