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."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's test a bit of conventional political wisdom. It's the idea that Donald Trump's presidential campaign will drive Latino voters away from the Republican Party.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Trump does not think so. He once declared, Latinos love Trump and I love them. Some surveys have shown his ratings among Latinos are no worse than other Republican contenders.
INSKEEP: It is true that Trump has shifted the focus of this campaign. He's captured attention with harsh descriptions of undocumented immigrants and a demand for better walls along the U.S.-Mexico border.
MONTAGNE: He has frustrated those who hoped for a different approach after Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2012. NPR's Asma Khalid met with some Latino Republican voters.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm at a bar in northern Virginia with half a dozen young conservatives. They're at a networking event after work, snacking on chips and salsa.
RICKY SALABARRIA: It was nice meeting you guys.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you have a card?
SALABARRIA: Yes, I do.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
SALABARRIA: Let me give you one.
KHALID: I meet 22-year-old Ricky Salabarria, a stylish consultant with a pair of Ray-Bans tucked into his pink dress shirt. Salabarria is Republican and Hispanic, and he says he's no fan of Donald Trump.
SALABARRIA: He drowns out a lot of the conservative field, and it's very bad for the Republican Party.
KHALID: Salabarria's family is originally from Cuba and Spain. And he says slapping up a giant wall is no way to deal with illegal immigration. He's troubled by that kind of talk.
SALABARRIA: Being Hispanic, being gay, it all sort of, like, makes it hard to be a part of the GOP right now. I don't feel like my views are being represented very well.
KHALID: So I ask him, what keeps him a Republican?
SALABARRIA: 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.
KHALID: Salabarria says social issues and immigration are eventually going to become nonissues because the party will evolve. And plus, he says, there are some GOP candidates with immigration ideas that appeal to him. Personally, he likes Jeb Bush. To be clear, the crux of the frustration for every Latino Republican I spoke to centers around Donald Trump and his hard-line immigration policies.
TOM NARVAEZ: It's disappointing what's going on with the party right now.
KHALID: That's 23-year-old Tom Narvaez. He grew up in Virginia. His parents came here from El Salvador.
NARVAEZ: If you want to win over the Latino community, you have to respect them. And I think that that's what some of the candidates are failing to do.
KHALID: Narvaez says he's a Republican because he believes in small government. But he says the immigration rhetoric these days, especially from Trump, is insulting. He pulls out his phone and reads me a tweet he sent to the GOP chairman the other night.
NARVAEZ: It says @GOP and @GOPChairman - minority votes just keep flying to the left. As a Latino, Donald Trump is what the GOP needs to lose my vote.
KHALID: Narvaez says few candidates are taking the issue of immigration seriously.
NARVAEZ: 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.
KHALID: Rubio worked on the Senate's bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill. Narvaez says he personally is not going to be swayed to the left by this immigration chatter, but he's worried that the party could get a bad reputation. Alfonso Aguilar works with a conservative group on Latino outreach. And he says immigration may not be the No. 1 issue for Latino voters, but it's a gateway issue.
ALFONSO AGUILAR: It's an issue that you have to get right. It doesn't mean that you have to believe in mass amnesty or 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.
KHALID: Aguilar says candidates, like Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, who've tried to match some of Trump's rhetoric on immigration have already lost Latino voters.
AGUILAR: The spectrum of candidates that have potential to be appealing to Latinos, it's narrowing. Now I think, really, we're almost down to Gov. Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Gov. Perry, and some of those are not viable. So, you know, that's part of the Trump effect.
KHALID: The Trump effect, Aguilar says, makes it hard to attract Latino voters, and Democrats, he says, are loving this moment. Asma Khalid, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.