CPAC: Conservatives Wrestle With Immigration Divide

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Conservatives grappled with their divisions on the contentious issue of immigration reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference as Congress continues its push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Speakers on an immigration-reform panel on Thursday morning pitched immigration as an issue that's compatible with conservative principles, but they received a relatively quiet reception from the audience of activists gathered in the conference hall.

"What I would hope is that you help conservatives who are putting their neck on the line" to find a solution, said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. "You can be conservative and you can be for immigration reform. I ask you to be part of the solution."

While the four panelists all agreed on the need to repair the nation's broken immigration system, opinions varied on how to address some of the most pressing issues of reform, including how to handle the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

A bipartisan plan being drafted in the Senate includes an earned pathway to full citizenship for undocumented immigrants. President Obama has said that a final bill must include a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who will address CPAC later Thursday, has helped craft the Senate plan.

But several panelists indicated that Republicans would prefer a path to legal status that doesn't provide a separate path to citizenship for the undocumented.

"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," said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration law.

Regardless of the policy specifics, panelists said that the Republican Party must change its tone on the immigration issue in order to repair its damaged brand with Hispanic voters, seven in 10 of whom voted for Obama in last November's election.

"We are losing the battle against secular socialism at the moment…we need more allies" said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. He also added that it would be a "good idea" for Republicans to aggressively pursue hard-working and religious Hispanic voters in order to rebuild a winning coalition.

But even that notion encountered some resistance. One heckler shouted "Legally!" in response to Ayres' pitch. Later, an audience member shouted out "Politically correct!" when Korn said that Republicans should use language that's less "harsh" when speaking about the issue of immigration.

"So now the conservative base that stopped amnesty is demonized at #cpac2013," tweeted Mark Krikorian, executive director of the immigration restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies.

Labrador, however, argued that Republicans are not the only ones to blame for past failures on immigration reform. He admitted that conservative lawmakers played a major role in killing the last comprehensive immigration reform effort in 2007, which was backed by President George W. Bush, but also noted that Democrat-aligned labor unions helped torpedo it, too.

"I know tone is important," the congressman said. "We need to stop blaming ourselves for this problem. We need to be the party of ideas."

Dan Garza, president of the conservative LIBRE Initiative, expressed wariness about cooperating with President Obama and Democrats on immigration, saying that Democrats have been unwilling to budge on issues like a path to citizenship and a guest-worker program to allow immigrant laborers to work legally in the U.S.

"They are unwilling to compromise because they continue to use this as a wedge issue instead of getting to a solution," he said. "I'm concerned that reasonable people who have offered up solutions…we're not going to see that on the other side and we're going to get nothing."

Instead of a sign of a movement that's hopelessly divided, Ayres said that it was positive for conservatives to talk out their differences on the issue. He also noted that the audience got a lot warmer as the event went on because leaders offered up a number of persuasive ideas about how to deal with immigration reform.

"I think it says there is enormous potential for conservatives to get behind immigration reform that's rooted in conservative principles," he added. "This is the time to do something about this issue."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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