The current front-runner in the Republican presidential primary, Donald Trump, is sparking a debate about immigration that’s beginning to alienate some conservative Latinos.
“He drowns out a lot of the conservative field, and it’s very bad for the Republican Party,” said Ricky Salabarria, a 22-year-old consultant with a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses tucked into his pink dress shirt.
Salabarria was among a half-dozen young conservatives at a networking event in Northern Virginia. He’s from Florida, and his family is originally from Cuba and Spain.
“Being Hispanic, being gay, it all sort of, like, makes it hard to be a part of the GOP right now,” Salabarria said. “I don’t feel like my views are being represented very well.”
Trump, who seems only to gain steam as the days go on, described some of the Mexican immigrants coming into the U.S. illegally as “rapists,” among other things. Then, in his first policy proposal — on immigration — he advocated for stripping the constitution of the 14th Amendment, which automatically grants citizenship to those born in the United States.
That sparked a week of candidates dancing around — or tripping over — the issue of “anchor babies,” children born in the U.S. to immigrants in the country illegally. Trump also wants to put up a wall and deport the 11 million or so immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
It’s all led to heated rhetoric from the candidates. Ben Carson called for using armed drones on the border, and just this weekend, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said immigrants on visa should be tracked like FedEx packages.
“At any moment, FedEx can tell you where that package is,” Christie said in New Hampshire on Saturday. “It’s on the truck. It’s at the station. It’s on the airplane. Yet we let people come to this country with visas, and the minute they come in, we lose track of them.”
Christie, who is supposed to be of the more moderate wing of the party, added that he would ask FedEx’s founder, Fred Smith, to work for him for three months to set up a program because “we need to have a system that tracks you from the moment you come in.”
Christie, by the way, called criticism of his comments “ridiculous” on Fox News Sunday.
Not Helping GOP Cause
When Republicans failed to win the White House in 2012, they conducted an autopsy that said:
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
When Salabarria, the young conservative in Northern Virginia, was asked why he still votes Republican if he doesn’t think his identity politics align with the party, he explained, “I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of free-market economy, limited government. I think those ideals still ring true, and I think that’s at the core of what being a conservative is.”
Salabarria said he thinks social issues and immigration will eventually become non-issues, because the Republican Party will evolve.
And he pointed out that even though Trump is monopolizing the spotlight with his immigration agenda, there are other GOP candidates with more moderate immigration ideas that appeal to him, specifically former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Trump’s Problem — And Influence
To be clear, the crux of the frustration for essentially every Latino Republican interviewed for this story was not the GOP presidential field in its entirety, but, specifically, Trump, his immigration ideologies, and his power to dominate (and influence) the conversation.
“It’s disappointing what’s going on with the party right now,” said Tom Narvaez, a 23-year-old law student from Virginia whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador. “If you want to win over the Latino community, you have to respect them. And I think that’s what some of the candidates are failing to do.”
Narvaez is a committed Republican. He interned for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and volunteered for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, but he said the immigration rhetoric in this campaign, especially from Trump, is “insulting.”
The other night, he even tweeted at RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to express his exasperation with the situation.
Narvaez is disappointed because, he said, it seems so few candidates are taking the issue of immigration seriously.
“Out of all the candidates right now, I think Marco Rubio is the only one that has a record of actually trying to move forward with immigration,” Narvaez said.
Rubio worked on the Senate’s bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill but has not championed it on the campaign trail.
Narvaez is a Republican, he said, because he believes deeply in small government. He said, personally, he’s not going to be swayed to the left by immigration chatter from the fringe, but he’s worried that the party could get a bad reputation.
Trump likes to say that Hispanics love him. But the data tell a different story. Trump is hugely unpopular with Latino voters of all political stripes.
A Gallup poll released last week showed two-thirds — 65 percent — of Latino voters have an unfavorable opinion of the real-estate-mogul-turned-GOP-front-runner. Only 14 percent had a favorable opinion of him.
Keep in mind, the poll was conducted before a Trump security guard kicked Univision’s Jorge Ramos out of Trump’s press conference in Iowa.
Immigration is important to many Latino voters on both sides of the aisle, said Alfonso Aguilar, who was the chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under George W. Bush. He now serves as executive director of the Latino Partnership at the conservative American Principles Project.
Aguilar explained that immigration may not be the top priority for Latinos in political polls, but it’s a “gateway” issue.
“It’s an issue you have to get right,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you have to believe in mass amnesty or a path to citizenship. You just have to show that you’re constructive, that you’re willing to, in an intelligent way, bring people out of the shadows, even if it’s not a special path to citizenship.”
Aguilar said Latinos are watching how candidates respond to Trump. He said some Republican presidential hopefuls — such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who have tried to match Trump’s staunch immigration rhetoric, have probably already lost Latino votes.
And other candidates who’ve remained silent probably haven’t done themselves any favors.
“The spectrum of candidates that have potential to be appealing to Latinos, it’s narrowing,” Aguilar said. “I think really we’re almost down to Governor Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Governor Perry, and some of those are not viable. So, you know, that’s part of the Trump effect.”
The “Trump effect,” Aguilar said, makes it harder to attract Latino voters.
“Democrats,” he added, “they love this.”