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Despite the GOP’s self-described need to get a bigger share of the Latino vote, the GOP presidential candidates are staying away from an influential gathering of Latinos, with one exception – Ben Carson.
Carson is slated to be a keynote speaker on Wednesday at the 1,000-person conference hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Las Vegas. (Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will also speak.) In election years, the conference full of local and state Latino officials is often a draw for both Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.
The organization invited all presidential candidates – or expected candidates – but Carson was the only Republican to agree to attend and speak. Arturo Vargas, the executive director of NALEO, said he was “delighted” when he received Carson’s confirmation.
Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has never held public office, has been doing extremely well in the polls despite some campaign mishaps that include offensive comments and an exodus of senior staff. Regardless, Carson came out on top of the Republican filed in the latest national poll. The Monmouth University poll released Monday showed Carson with 11 percent support of Republican voters. (It’s important to note that the poll does have a 5.9 percent margin of error.)
Carson’s spokesperson, Deana Bass, said he is attending the NALEO conference because he wants to “earn the support of all Americans.”
“That is why it’s so important for him to attend NALEO and have dialogue with NALEO members ... who represent millions of constituents in the Latino community,” she added.
Even though the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, immigration continues to be a controversial topic within the Republican Party. Despite the party’s insistence that it must attract Hispanics in order to be successful, candidates continue to take positions that turn away Latino voters.
In his announcement speech Wednesday, Donald Trump said the people coming across the border are criminals and rapists and that Mexicans “are not our friends.”
Rick Santorum promoted that he is the only candidate to receive an A rating from the immigration-reduction group Numbers USA, and Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who is expected to jump in the race, has shifted his position from supporting a path to legalization to the far right position of limiting legal immigration as well.
Carson has expressed a sympathetic tone toward immigrants, writing in one of his books, “America the Beautiful,” that the U.S. has “taken the moral low road” when it comes to immigration, according to Mother Jones. “Some segments of our economy would virtually collapse without these undocumented workers—we all know that—yet we continue to harass and deport many individuals who are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”
In an opinion piece he wrote exactly one year ago for National Review, Carson laid out his plan for immigration. It has some holes but is the most specific plan that most of the candidates have.
He called for a national guest-worker program where undocumented immigrants would have to leave the country to apply. “If they are wise, they will arrange with their employer before they leave to immediately offer them a legal job as soon as their application is received,” he wrote, neglecting to say how undocumented children who don’t work or stay-at-home parents or the elderly would have to leave or stay.
Carson has also made some controversial statements about immigration, saying on CNN that the recent measles outbreak was caused, in part, by “people coming in who are not necessarily being properly screened.”
Missing from the roster is Jeb Bush, who has taken a lot of heat from the activists within his party over the issue of immigration because of his support for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. (He used to support a path to citizenship but has modified his stance since he jumped into presidential politics.)
Bush, whose campaign announcement on Monday was held in Miami with a heavy dose of Latin flair, is not attending the conference because of scheduling differences. He will be in Las Vegas next weekend and is currently on his post-announcement tour in Iowa and South Carolina.
In Iowa on Thursday, Bush laid out his immigration plan, again adopting the Republican Party’s mandatory position of securing the borders first, but he differed from some Republicans by saying he would then create a strategy “to expand the number of people who can help us grow economically.” He also said children brought to the U.S. by their parents “ought to be able to earn citizenship.” As for their parents, he said they should be able to receive legal status “over time.”
“It’s not amnesty when you do it that way,” Bush told a small gathering in a back yard in Iowa.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is the son of Cuban immigrants and could attract the support of Latinos, will also be missing from the rundown. He, too, had a scheduling conflict his campaign said, but noted that he has addressed the organization in the past. Rubio spoke in 2011 and 2012, before he took a leading role in pushing immigration reform through the Senate - a move that cost him a tremendous amount of political capital within his party and forced him to backtrack on his position.
Vargas said he’s very interested in hearing what Carson has to say. “The most important message we want to hear is their vision of the Latino community’s role in the future of America,” Vargas said.