The Republican Party, it seems, has a Latino problem.
Latinos are the fastest-growing population in America - they are estimated to make up 30 percent of the U.S. population by the middle of this century. So for the GOP to remain competitive, the party will need to win over more Latinos, who broke for Democrats by a nearly 2-1 margin in the 2010 elections.
Yet the issue of immigration had made that task enormously difficult. Many in the Republican base vehemently oppose "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, and last year many GOP primaries doubled as contests over which candidate can be most forceful in their opposition to illegal immigration.
A GOP-led effort in Arizona culminated in the controversial immigration legislation known as SB 1070, and Republicans in other states are now seeking to pass similar legislation in their states. The DREAM Act, which would have opened the door to a path to citizenship to many young people who were brought to America as children, was blocked by Senate Republicans at the end of last year. GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa introduced a bill last week to .
The rhetoric coming out of the GOP has alienated many Latinos and, in turn, left Republican leaders fretting about the long-term prospects of their party. In an effort to bridge the divide between Latinos and Republicans, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and others in the party are holding a conference in Florida this week called the Hispanic Leadership Network.
"This is not about politics, this is about the conservative cause," he said in kicking off the conference, as CNN reports. "And if you look over the horizon over the next 10 to 20 years...without the active involvement of Hispanics, we will not be the governing philosophy of our country."
Bush, who speaks Spanish and is married to a woman born in Mexico, is one of the Republicans to have found favor with Latino voters. Another is his brother George W. Bush, who won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in the 2004 presidential election and tried, unsuccessfully, to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. (His party has shifted to the right on immigration since then.) It's also important to note the success of Latino Republicans, who won two governorships, a Senate seat and seven House seats in the midterm elections.
Yet many Republicans have an uneasy relationship with Latino voters - as evidenced by the fact that just one of the GOP's likely 2012 presidential candidates accepted an invitation to speak at the conference. That would be former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who, somewhat surprisingly, avoided the proverbial elephant in the room until the end of his speech on Friday. When he did address immigration, he merely echoed the GOP talking point on the issue: the border must be secured before a conversation about immigration reform can begin.
"We need to start the discussion with the notion that the rule of law is a cornerstone tenant of our nation," Pawlenty said.
Republicans like Pawlenty argue that Latinos are naturally conservative and shouldn't get hung up on the issue of immigration.
"When we go to voters in the Latino community, guess what? They want to know about jobs," he told Politico, adding: "Yes, they're concerned about the immigration issue. But to say that's all they care about is not accurate."
Alfonso Aguilar, another conference participant and the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, put it this way to NPR: ""Latinos are inherently conservative: They're socially conservative; they are entrepreneurial; they're pro-business. Immigration ... is that one issue that prevents us from winning the support of Latino voters."
Those Latinos looking for signs that the GOP was moving in what they consider the right direction were heartened by the fact that King, the Iowa Republican pushing the birthright citizenship bill, was kept from the chair of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee in the new Congress. They saw it as a small sign that Republicans are pulling back from some of their most alienating positions on immigration.
But that won't be enough to deal with the larger problem, one that saw Latinos support the Democratic nominee for president in 2006 by a 67 percent - 31 percent margin. Many Republicans worry their party is pushing away Latinos in much the same way they formerly turned off African-Americans, many of whom became alienated from the party over its rhetoric during the civil rights movement.
"Republicans think that they have an image problem but they really actually have a policy problem," University of Southern California professor Manuel Pastor told Bloomberg. "It's hard to convince someone to vote for you when you are threatening to deport their grandmother."