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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

We Asked Latino Republicans What They Really Want from GOP Candidates in 2016

In the GOP's alternate universe of mass deportations and anchor babies and IRS agents patrolling the border, what does it mean to be a conservative who supports immigration reform?

Photo via Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

Sickened by GOP presidential hopefuls' anti-immigrant rhetoric and hawkish immigration promises, Latino conservatives have a warning for their party's presidential contenders: Chill out, or lose our vote.

The Republican field seems to cook up new ways to target migrants each week. Donald Trump clearly leads the pack: he's vowed to make Mexico pay for a giant wall on the whole border, to stop US-born babies of undocumented parents from being citizens, and to round up all 11 million illegal immigrants for a mass deportation. Lately Ted Cruz has been similarly flexing his muscles, pledging to stop more migrants from entering the US, even legally (a particular irony since his dad is a Cuban-born refugee). And now, the aspiring GOP leaders have called on President Obama to halt his plans to accept additional Syrian refugees, claiming that doing so would be akin to inviting ISIS into the homeland.


Latino Republicans are understandably fed up. A group of the nation's top Hispanic conservative organizations have mobilized to voice their demands, and organized a press conference before the last GOP primary debate in Boulder, Colorado, to pressure candidates to avoid espousing extreme positions on immigration reform. Trump's incendiary anti-Latino rhetoric sparked the protest, but the activists warned the rest of the field that they'd be watching each candidate closely.

"We're angry at the tone some candidates are using to talk about Latinos and immigrants. We're also concerned about the proposals some candidates are advancing," Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, told reporters at the press conference. "To these candidates, we issue a warning to say don't embrace these policies if you want to be successful in the general election."

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The group has vowed to boycott Trump, and will hold another rally before December's GOP debate in Las Vegas, in which they'll address other candidates' approaches.

"We Hispanic Republicans are not going to turn our backs on our own fellow citizens, documented or undocumented. The issue of immigration is an issue of inclusion and respect," Gonzalo Ferrer, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, told me. "We're all immigrants to this country, documented or undocumented, and the people who need to survive and work and who love America who want to be American citizens—we're talking about very good people here."


Ferrer and other conservative Latinos point out, correctly, that the GOP's anti-immigrant rhetoric could hurt the party on Election Day, and perhaps even cost it the White House in 2016. According to a recent NBC News poll, just 6 percent of Latino voters view the Republican Party "very positively," and just 18 percent view the party as "somewhat positive"; meanwhile, a full 43 percent said they viewed the party in a negative light.

"Instead of recognizing that a realistic and humane solution for the undocumented population is in the best interest for the nation—as well as the best interest of the GOP future—Republicans are mounting a relentless fight against sensible immigration policies," Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform advocacy group America's Voice, said in a press statement last month. "Barring an unforeseen change of heart in immigration, the Republicans will head to a 2016 general election season with a Latino problem that will make their past electoral problems seem quaint."

But while Hispanic conservatives are predictably frustrated by the Republican Party's demented descent into xenophobic paranoia and straight-up racism, their position is starting to feel like an oxymoron. In the GOP's alternate universe of mass deportations and anchor babies and IRS agents patrolling the border, what does it mean to be a conservative who supports immigration reform? I talked with some leading Republican Latino activists to find out what a reasonable Republican immigration policy might look like in 2016.


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The Border
Latino conservatives I spoke to agree with GOP candidates that the US needs to do more to secure its southern border—but not with a giant wall, and not as a condition to other reforms. "We absolutely oppose a wall but we're all for border security and increasing resources on the border," said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a Koch-funded political that aims to draw Latino voters to the GOP.

"Everyone knows we have a porous border and that's not a good thing for our country. Latinos recognize that," Garza added. "But if you only address border security, that's a problem. Border security should not hold up other reforms and we shouldn't wait for some magical interception rate at the border to trigger other pieces [of reform]."

Other conservative activists I spoke to weren't opposed to the idea of some sort of erecting additional barriers between the US and Mexico. Aguilar said that fencing is needed along some parts of the border, but that it's unreasonable for anyone to expect the US could stop illegal crossings entirely.

"I believe in strategic fencing where a lot of immigrants are trying to cross illegally, like the El Paso sector in Texas," he explained. "There are parts of the border that are totally porous."

Ferrer meanwhile claimed candidates' obsession with sealing the border from dangerous migrants conveyed a ludicrous, racist fear of Latinos. "When we're only talking about the border with south it's really racist. We have problems with the northern border too," he said. "What candidates are afraid of is the rapidly changing faces of America."


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Those 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants
When it comes to the estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the US—you know, the ones Trump wants to round up and send to Mexico—Latino conservatives, like their liberal counterparts, tend to support giving these individuals a pathway to citizenship. In fact, the vast majority of Latinos in the US—77 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll—support a pathway to citizenship; about half of Republican voters also support this type of reform.

"Here, like Nazi Germany, mothers go to sleep every night thinking their families are going to be deported," Ferrer said. "We cannot have people living in fear thinking they can be deported any time so our first priority should be that."

GOP candidates have resisted a path to citizenship, claiming this would be an unfair reward for undocumented individuals. Garza acknowledged that convincing Republicans—or a Republican president—to support a pathway to citizenship would be politically difficult, if not impossible, and said he and other Latino conservatives are open to finding a compromise.

"Ideally what we'd like to see is a path to citizenship. The 11 million has to become assimilated and contributing immediately to our economy and society, the way poor immigrants have in the past," Garza said. "What is politically viable is a whole different ballgame. If we cannot get an ideal path to citizenship, we'd find acceptable a work visa program for folks already here."


New Work Visas
The conservative Latino activists I spoke with argued that the government should expand its work visa program, by issuing more visas for both skilled and unskilled laborers—a position that was once accepted by many in the GOP, but is increasingly rejected by the party's presidential candidates.

"It's extremely hard to immigrate to the US, as evidenced by the backlog of applications, and that's evidence of what we as conservatives talk about—that government is inefficient and counterproductive," said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund. Lopez suggested that the government should increase visa quotas for both skilled and unskilled workers.

"I'd like to see the number of visas match up with the number of jobs available," he told me. "There's no question we also need more skilled worker visas," he added, but "we need a recognition that the number of lower skilled worker visas is inadequate."

Most Republican candidates previously agreed with at least part of Lopez's suggestion, supporting the growth of skilled worker visas. But as the primary has taken a turn toward nativism, nearly all have undergone a stark policy reversal to tow a harder immigration line. Ted Cruz, for instance has done a total 180 on the issue of skilled worker visas; as recently as 2013, the Texas Senator supported an increase of H1-B highly skilled work visas from 65,000 to 325,000, but just this month Cruz pledged to suspend any such visas, claiming the move would protect American workers.


Obama's Executive Order on Immigration
While many Latino Republicans may implicitly agree with President Obama on the issue of deportation relief, they, like the rest of their party, were outraged by the president's executive order to extend that protection to as many as 4.7 million undocumented immigrants. Every activist I spoke to cheered the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision to strike down the executive action, accusing the president of attempting a power grab that left millions of lives in limbo.

Read on VICE News: President Obama Wants to Take His Deportation Relief Fight to the Supreme Court

"Whatever he can do by executive order you have to assume can be rescinded by [another] executive order," Lopez said. "So if a different president says this isn't legitimate and rescinds it that leaves those people in limbo as well. The legislative branch has legitimate power to write laws, not the executive branch."

"The issue is Obama is using these poor folks as pawns," he added. "He's playing political games with people's lives."

Aguilar argued that the only permanent reform would have to come through Congress.

"When you're doing something big like this you have to achieve bipartisan consensus," he said.

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