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The largest gathering of conservative activists since the November election began today just outside Washington, D.C. The meeting is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. One of the first panel discussions today was all about an issue that appears to have hurt Republicans back in the fall. It was about immigration, and what to do about millions of people who live in the country illegally. NPR's David Welna reports if there was consensus, it was that Republicans need to do better on this issue.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was a sparse crowd that showed up today for the CPAC panel that was titled, perhaps hopefully, Respecting Families and the Rule of Law: A Lasting Immigration Policy. Moderator Helen Aguirre Ferre hosts a Miami radio show on politics. She kicked off the discussion with a trenchant observation on its hot-button issue of immigration.
HELEN AGUIRRE FERRE: I have to say that there isn't a topic today that has done more to divide our country unnecessarily.
WELNA: It's a topic that has clearly divided Republicans. Panelist Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, pointed out the party's dismal showing among Latino voters last November. And he admonished fellow Republicans to change both their tone and rhetoric when it comes to immigration.
WHIT AYRES: You cannot run against a group of people and hope to have those people turn around and support you. And the idea that we can use harsh tones against the undocumented without affecting how the people who are American citizens look at us is delusional. It is just delusional.
WELNA: But the only member of Congress on the five-person panel, Idaho House Republican Raul Labrador, disagreed. He said there's been enough self-flagellation in the party over badmouthing immigration.
REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: Let's stop blaming ourselves. Let's just be a party of action. Let's fix this immigration problem. And let's stop talking about the rhetoric. I think it's important that we have better rhetoric. But you have five Republicans who have bad rhetoric. The rest of them are actually pretty good about what we're saying about the immigration issue.
WELNA: Labrador said he favors finding some way to legalize the situation of the millions of undocumented immigrants. But he and many other Republicans do not favor laying out a path to citizenship for them. Daniel Garza heads a conservative Latino group that advocates giving illegal immigrants provisional work visas that might eventually become permanent. Congress, he said, faces a conundrum.
DANIEL GARZA: If the Democrats force a vote that calls for a path to citizenship, the bill will almost fail. And if the Republicans propose legislation that calls for mere legality while coming up short on paths to citizenship, the bill, seemingly, will also fail. My hope is that American conservatives will come together to demand a bipartisan compromise.
WELNA: Pollster Ayres, for his part, said Republicans also could use some new voices to aggressively recruit Latino voters.
AYRES: We have got to have different messengers, and you are going to hear from several of them during the course of this conference. I happen to think one of them is an incredibly talented man, and I would say that even if he were not a client of our firm. You're going to hear this afternoon from Marco Rubio, the RGIII of American politics.
WELNA: But when Florida Republican Senator Rubio spoke at the conference this afternoon, he said not one word about immigration, despite being one of the GOP's leading voices on the issue. Immigration and, in particular, the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that Rubio has come around to embrace, appears to remain too toxic a topic for ambitious Republican politicians to broach, at least at this CPAC gathering. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.