AUSTIN, Texas -- For all the talk about the need for Republicans and conservatives do to Hispanic outreach following the 2012 presidential election, they might be overlooking a more important task: "gringo inreach."
In other words, conservatives will need to reckon with themselves on the need to evolve their hardline stances on issues like immigration before they can successfully appeal to Latino, Asian-American, and black voters who have largely abandoned the GOP to join their ranks. That was the main takeaway of an immigration debate on Thursday hosted by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in the state capital.
"Hispanic outreach is a very essential portion of what we need to do," said Brad Bailey, a Texas restaurateur and GOP political activist. "But if you look around this room right now, we need to do 'gringo inreach.' We need to honestly dispel the myths and the lies and the rhetoric that surrounds this issue."
The immigration discussion was just one part of a three-day gathering meant to brief Texas lawmakers and political insiders on key policies upon the opening of the state legislature's new session.
But the talk touched on questions of a more national concern: how will the Republican Party repair its image and adjust to a country where racial and ethnic minorities are rapidly growing in number and political importance while the GOP's older, white base declines?
Immigration is only one part of the equation. Candidates, campaign tactics, outreach, and political strategy matter too. But immigration is likely to be one of the first major issue the U.S. Congress tackles this year. Whether Republicans decide to derail a bill or play ball could dramatically impact how the party is perceived by Latino groups, who have long lobbied for a comprehensive reform effort.
"I will be very surprised and disappointed if the federal Congress does not act on immigration in the year 2013," said Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), who was elected to Congress in the fall. "I hope that as a nation, we can face it square on, without many of the recriminations and without much of the bickering we have seen in the past."
Castro said that he supports a pathway to earned citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants. That includes DREAM Act students, who should "absolutely have citizenship."
GOP activists and officials here in Texas did not go as far as Castro. But they took stabs at redefining conservative immigration policy in a way that's more welcoming to immigrants, with the hope that their ideas would take hold on the national level.
"Do we really want to grow a government big enough to round up 11 million people?" asked Todd Staples, Texas' agriculture commissioner who is running for lieutenant governor.
Staples and others spoke in favor of an expanded guest-worker program that could provide a legal workforce for agricultural businesses and other low-skilled fields. According to some estimates, around 80 percent of agricultural field workers are undocumented immigrants.
Bailey has already gained success in that regard. He spearheaded an effort to include language in the Texas GOP platform that endorsed a guest-worker program, an unprecedented development considering the hawkish immigration views of many Republican activists in the state.
His language was later adopted into Republican National Committee's platform in August. Bailey acknowledges, however, that the prevailing view of the GOP is poor among Hispanic voters in large part because of its damaging rhetoric and enforcement-only approach to immigration.
"We have alienated the fastest-growing demographic in the country," he said. "we are being viewed as oppressive, as hateful, as elitist. That's not a good thing.
But some at the panel still believe that conservative's can't abide a shift on immigration.
"It's hard to believe in a new policy when we don't enforce all the old laws," said Brian Kennedy of the conservative Claremont Institute in California. "There is a simple question of justice here. You have a lot of Hispanics in this country who are working very hard, who have come here legally, who are citizens, who are having their jobs taken away by people who have come here illegally."
But Staples disputed that idea, arguing that the nation's current immigration laws have made it extraordinarily difficult for agricultural businesses all over the country to staff themselves.
"No one is relocating to the Rio Grande Valley to pick grapefruit," he said. "Our country is not producing the workforce necessary to meet the market demands of our economy."
But beyond the policy specifics, Bailey and others reiterated that the most important thing for the Republican Party is to speak out against the anti-immigration forces within their ranks.
"They'll tell you behind closed doors 'I agree with you 110 percent.' But when they get to a microphone at a rally, it's 'ehhhh,'" Bailey said, describing some elected officials he's met. "This is a partisan issue because hey are being told what your friends think; that if you vote one way on this, you will be voted out."