NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Business mogul Donald Trump stood on the main stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday and castigated fellow Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for advocating immigration reform that he said boils down to, "let everybody in."
"With immigration, you better be smart and you better be tough," Trump said before turning to an often-mocked message on undocumented immigrants: "They're taking your jobs and you better be careful."
At previous years' CPACs, Trump's statements wouldn't have seemed extraordinary. The annual gathering of conservative politicians and activists has hosted plenty of speakers over the years who decried immigration amnesty, open borders and Democrats' supposed desire to legalize undocumented immigrants in order to gain more voters.
That's not to say CPAC has been traditionally against immigration reform -- it hosted a 2013 panel that discussed the need to address the issue, and CPAC's main organizer, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, supports reform.
But on Thursday, the first day of this year's conference, most speakers either steered clear of immigration or, in the case of the only panel on the issue, were in favor of reform. The panel was entitled "Can There be Meaningful Immigration Reform Without Citizenship?" -- not asking if there should be reform, but how and when to do it right.
There were arguments similar to Trump's being made in National Harbor, but most weren't at CPAC. At the nearby competing, and much smaller, National Security Action Conference, 2013 CPAC speakers such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) warned that "if we allow any kind of legalization to take place that rewards people that are here illegally, we will not be able to restore the rule of law within the lifetime of this republic." A panel at that conference called "Amnesty and Open Borders: The End of America -- and the GOP" featured messages from groups that oppose legal status for undocumented immigrants, including NumbersUSA and Center for Immigration Studies.
At CPAC, the majority of panelists took the position that immigration reform that gives legal status to undocumented immigrants would be the right move. The lone voice of opposition belonged to Derrick Morgan, vice president of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, who said this is "unfortunately, regrettably" not the time for Republicans to work with President Barack Obama on immigration, arguing that the president can't be trusted to enforce a law if it's passed. Allowing for reform that gives undocumented immigrants legal status, but not citizenship, may sound appealing to some conservatives, he said, but it's a slippery slope.
"Do we really think that the left is content to stop with only half a loaf?" Morgan asked, referring to the proposal to grant legal status, but not citizenship. "I think it's far more likely that before the ink on President Obama's signature on the law has dried, that the left will decry the 'Jim Crow status' of these newly legalized immigrants."
Luis Cortés Jr., president of the Hispanic group Esperanza, said there could be reform without citizenship, but it would give Democrats a chance to bash the GOP and continue to win Latino voters.
"There doesn't need to be a special path to citizenship," Cortés said. "We do not want to give automatic green cards to people who have broken the law. But there should be no preclusion for those that want a green card to get in the back of the line once they've met all legalization requirements."
Others made the case that now is the time for House Republicans to at least put forward their version of immigration reform. Helen Krieble, president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, talked about her group's "Red Card Solution" for immigration reform: A guest worker system that allows immigrants to come or stay based on employer needs. She said that although House Republicans may be unable to get their preferred immigration bills approved by the Senate or the president, it's still their responsibility to show they have ideas.
"Obama says that Republicans have no ideas, that Republicans are a do-nothing, obstructionist party," Krieble said. "Is that how you see yourselves? So you're going to sit there and say nothing and prove Obama's rhetoric? I will not allow Obama to define me. This is an issue I want to talk about."
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become legal residents and then go through the normal process of citizenship -- no "special pathway," but no ban, either. He warned against Republicans failing to address the issue during Obama's presidency.
"Conservatives need to address immigration, and we need to do it now," Aguilar said. "We cannot wait for a Republican administration. We have to do it now. The American public, and even our conservative Republican base, wants us to lead and legislate. We have three more years of President Obama, what are we going to do? Sit on our hands?"