Thursday's conservative confab made a big effort to put Hispanic Republicans in the spotlight and stress the importance of immigration reform. But the conservatives on CPAC's immigration panel Thursday morning also made one thing very clear: They don't think a path to full citizenship for illegal immigrants was a necessary part of an immigration overhaul, and think that it could be a politically toxic issue that could doom the chances for a bill.
If an immigration overhaul includes a path to citizenship, "it will almost certainly fail" because of Republican opposition, said Dan Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a Hispanic conservative advocacy group. "Getting citizenship — that may not be politically viable, and I think we need to be politically astute about this," Garza said. And Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) made it clear that he opposed a path to citizenship on principle. "It would be a travesty in my opinion to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States," he concluded.
Instead, panelists converged around a path to "earned legal status" for illegal immigrants that would legalize their standing without giving them the full rights of U.S. citizens.
What illegal immigrants really want above all is "permanencia — the certainty that you won't be deported tomorrow," said Graza. "At least let's get legality, get the authority to work and to provide for our children. I think that's where the compromise is going to be." Others on the panel agreed: "The Hispanic community [is] pretty open to earned legal status," added Jenny Korn, executive director of the American Action Network, arguing that many didn't want the negotiations to "break apart" over the issue.
It's precisely the path that former Florida governor Jeb Bush laid out in his recent book (though he quickly backpedaled after being accused of flip-flopping) and the one that Labrador supports in the House, calling it a way to give illegal immigrants "a fair chance to redeem themselves."
But the position puts these conservatives at odds with Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who've committed to an overhaul that includes a path to citizenship — not to mention the Democrats who are even more adamant about the idea. Interestingly, Rubio spoke shortly afterward at CPAC, but made no mention of immigration during his speech, avoiding a showdown among conservatives on the issue — for now.