The main speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference almost entirely ignored immigration. Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-authored the Senate immigration bill, dodged the issue. The one major exception was Donald Trump, who denounced Rubio for wanting to “let everyone in” and repeated the oldest of all anti-immigration slogans.
“They’re taking your jobs!” Trump declared.
It was a far cry from last year’s CPAC, where immigration was arguably the number one issue among speakers and attendees. The topic animated supporters and opponents alike, with the former desperately urging attendees to back reform or risk a Hillary Clinton presidency, the latter booing the mere mention of Latino outreach by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“I think that other issues have jumped up that are kind of preempting it in people’s minds,” said Chris Loesch, a regular CPAC attendee whose wife, Dana Loesch, is a conservative radio host. “What you have going on in Venezuela and Ukraine are more in people’s thoughts and Obamacare continues to be terrible for the economy and everyone involved.”
Plenty has happened in the interim to push the issue down the list of CPAC priorities. Rubio largely dropped the issue after a conservative backlash to his successful efforts to pass the Senate bill. House Republican leaders finally countered with an immigration framework that included a path to citizenship, but it’s gotten little traction with rank-and-file members and Speaker John Boehner has indicated the issue is on hold until his caucus’ attitude changes. Meanwhile, the president’s sagging approval ratings and struggles implementing his health care law have Republicans dreaming of major midterm gains and less inclined to rock the boat with a divisive policy fight.
This year featured one panel on the topic away from the main stage, which featured pro-reform Republicans and a dissenting panelist from the Heritage foundation who politely argued against “amnesty.” Participants who favored legalizing undocumented immigrants stressed that House Republicans needed to produce a counteroffer to the Senate or face major repercussions for politics and policy alike.
“The house can say this is our marker, this is what we believe should happen, and we will take care of this matter when it is a possibility,” Helen Krieble, a longtime advocate for an expanded guest worker program, told the audience.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, acknowledged that among House Republicans, “the majority of them are afraid” of passing reform. Even so, he urged them to press forward, saying the tea party was more divided on immigration than talk radio would have them believe.
“If Republicans don’t deal constructively with the issue of immigration before the 2016 election, whoever the Republican candidate is [will] have a very difficult time, even an impossible time, getting enough Latino votes to win the White House,” he told the audience.
Aguilar told msnbc that he thought the atmosphere around immigration was “less confrontational” compared to last year’s CPAC. Part of that he credited to real progress in convincing Republicans to embrace the issue, as demonstrated by the Senate’s bipartisan bill and the House GOP’s recent immigration framework. But part of the détente is due to the fact that anti-reform conservatives believe they’ve already won based on the House plan’s lukewarm response and thus feel free to devote their attention elsewhere.
“People are saying that it’s dead for the year,” Aguilar said.
The only other immigration related event scheduled for the day: A screening of the Citizens United documentary “Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration.”
CPAC’s top organizer, American Conservative Union chair Al Cardenas, told msnbc that he still believed “the needle’s moved more in favor of immigration reform” since the last gathering.
“My sense is it will be very difficult for the House to find a path to citizenship as an answer, but I’m confident the House will find some methodology to provide legal status to most of these folks,” he said.