CPAC consultant rejects Donald Trump's immigration message.

Republicans Deeply Want to Win Over Hispanic Voters. Is It Too Late?

Republicans Deeply Want to Win Over Hispanic Voters. Is It Too Late?

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March 3 2016 1:09 PM

Consultant Pleads for Conservatives to Stop Being So Awful on Immigration at CPAC

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Donald Trump in Biloxi, Mississippi, in January.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Poor Mike Madrid. The California-based GOP consultant who specializes in minority-voter trends was tasked with leading this year’s annual, fruitless How to Talk to Minority Voters panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Each year there’s some version of this session, and each year conservative activists and Republican politicians fail to change their ways. With Donald Trump in line to lock up the Republican presidential nomination soon, the window for changing the party’s tone toward Hispanic voters and expecting any returns may be closed.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

Madrid’s presentation included a PowerPoint of the demographic data that have been staring the GOP in the face for years but that have yet to force it to change its ways. The country will be a majority-minority country by midcentury, he pointed out, based on growth trends among Hispanic and Asian-American populations. He sought to dispel certain notions about why this is. It is not because of illegal immigration. “This rapid growth is going to be fueled in large part by natural birth,” he said. “It is not from immigrants, documented or undocumented, legal or illegal.” The immigration data among Hispanics now, as he said, is a “net out-migration, especially for Mexican undocumented immigrants back to Mexico. This self-deportation concept that Mitt Romney talked about? It’s happening.”

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He also shot down the other popularly held idea that immigrants travel en masse to the United States to get those sweet, sweet government poverty benefits. One attendee asked whether Hispanics vote so heavily Democratic because they’re mostly poor and dependent on the government. “People do not come to this country to get on welfare,” Madrid said. “You don’t put your person and your family through that experience to come get on welfare.” He also urged the party to abandon its propensity to paper over ethnic differences as not meaningful—as, say, Gov. Bobby Jindal would when he expressed exasperation about speaking of people as “hyphenated” Americans. “Long gone are the days where you could say, ‘I wish we could all just be Americans,’ ” he said. “Well, I wish we could all just be Americans too. The truth is, we all are Americans, but our approach and our experiences in life are far different than any generation of Americans have ever experienced in the last 200 years.”

Madrid, like other GOP consultants interested in making inroads in the Hispanic community, believes that Hispanic voters represent a naturally Republican constituency: They’re culturally conservative, own small businesses, and enlist in the military at high rates.

The problem, in his mind, is purely rhetorical. “Our party is viewed as a hostile party,” he said. And in an allusion to the elephant in the room, he said it’s counterproductive to speak only about “building the wall” and “adding 10 feet to the wall” and fighting with “former heads of state.”

“Look, we are asking to be irrelevant.”

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Any CPAC speaker or panelist urging conservatives to stop talking about a border wall is going to earn his critics. “Either illegal immigration is a problem or it’s not,” one fuming attendee said to Madrid in the hallway outside the panel. “People are coming into this country—uninvited—playing Americans for suckers. … We have laws here. Those laws either mean something or they don’t.”

“Then fix the laws!” Madrid said. “Don’t build walls.”

“So we should have open borders?”

“No, I’m not an open-border advocate,” Madrid responded. “I’m for increasing border security and border control until we get the current problem fixed.” He then turned away.

I’ve sat at several of these CPAC panels over the years. The message is always about the importance of ameliorating the party’s rhetoric toward Hispanics before it’s too late. So I asked Madrid if there was a cut-off date for the GOP to make its case before the damage is permanent. “There’s absolutely a point at which the rhetoric gets irreparable,” he said. Is that point, say, this year? “I think it very well could be. I can’t imagine it getting much worse."