Will immigration undermine Republicans in 2016?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came under fire for saying that some immigrants come to the U.S. illegally as an "act of love." AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File

Immigration has long been a divisive issue that has stymied the GOP, and it is already shaping up to be one of the most challenging issues that Republicans must address in the next presidential election.

A weekend cattle call of many of the party's prospective nominees showed that, like 2012, the GOP's base may still reward the candidate who seen as the biggest hard-liner on the issue, even though there may be a price to pay among Hispanic voters.

Immigration has simmered just beneath the surface for the party all year as Congress debated the merits of passing a massive overhaul of the existing laws. But it bubbled to the surface last week when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested last Sunday that many people who came to the U.S. illegally did so as an "act of love" to help their families.

He has reason to be defensive: the mere mention of Bush's comments drew boos from the conservative audience at this weekend's Freedom Summit in New Hampshire, an event put on by influential right-leaning groups the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United. Donald Trump turned it into an attack on Bush, calling his ideas "out there" and promising to put his business skills to work building a fence "like you've never seen" along the southern border.

The moment had echoes of the hot water that Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, landed in during his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign when he said that critics of Texas' law granting in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants didn't "have a heart." He had to walk back the comment quickly, but his campaign was already beginning to suffer the aftershocks.

Still, some high-profile Republicans are going to give Perry's approach a second shot. Bush decided to defend his remarks on Thursday and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggested that criticism of Bush's comments were a result of problems with his presentation rather than their substance.

"I think he might have been more artful, maybe, in the way he presented this. But I don't want to say, oh, he's terrible for saying this," Paul said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

"If it were me, what I would have said is, people who seek the American dream are not bad people," Paul said. "Here's what I'd finish up with: They are not bad people. However, we can't invite the whole world. When you say they're doing an act of love and you don't follow it up with, 'but we have to control the border,' people think, well because they're doing this for kind reasons that the whole world can come to our country."

Paul added that the perception that the GOP vilifies all immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally is "a perception we do have to change."

The Kentucky Republican is perhaps the best poised to bring about a change in the party's overall tone toward minority voters. Working from the passionate base his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, built, Rand Paul has become one of the more popular GOP presidential hopefuls. He won the annual Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll for the second consecutive time earlier this year, and has no shortage of speaking gigs in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Although Paul said the Republican party should stress the need to control the border, he chose not to attack Bush for his comments. And in his own speech at the Freedom Summit, he told the party they needed to pay better attention to actively courting voters beyond their base.

"The door's not going to open up to the African-American community, to the Hispanic community, until we have something to offer," Paul said.

Speaking about the overrepresentation of minority populations in the prison system, an issue he has focused on in the Senate, Paul said, "Your kids and grandkids aren't perfect either...the police don't come to your neighborhoods. You get a better lawyer. These are some injustices. We've got to be concerned about people who may not be part of our group, who may not be here today."

Politicians like Paul know Republicans have a problem that won't be solved by ignoring the issue. In 2012, the party's presidential nominee Mitt Romney received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote to President Obama's 71 percent. Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the U.S., and a growing part of the electorate. In 2013, veteran operatives recommended to the Republican National Committee (RNC) that the party "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform" at the risk of losing all but the core constituencies if they did not. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has refused to move on the issue in the House, suggesting that most of his members see only political peril if they engage.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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