Associated PressCORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) -- As debate heats up around the Senate immigration bill, Latino Republican leaders are calling on fellow conservatives to refrain from harsh rhetoric, focus on the issues and embrace a fair but practical solution for the 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal permission.Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., told audience members at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference on Friday that he was proud of the so-called "Gang of Eight" Republican and Democratic senators who drafted the legislation and expects a bill to be introduced soon in the House.
The bill would allow immigrants in the U.S. illegally to obtain a provisional status after 10 years and later apply for citizenship. The measure is contingent on meeting certain border security goals first. It would also allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status.
"Having them in this status that we know they're here, but we don't want to deal with it, does nothing to support our economy," Diaz-Balart said.
The annual gathering of conservative Latinos was notably more quiet than a year before, when several immigrant activists interrupted U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and demanded to know why he refused to support existing proposals through the so-called Dream Act for youth in the country illegally. There were no protesters outside and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez recognized a young immigrant leader who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child.
"It's about time to deal with those kids based on their merit," Diaz-Balart said.
Latino Republicans like Rubio are now playing an important role in immigration reform, and party leaders hope they can help recapture the Latino vote. Some Republicans have been showing signs of coming around to a more moderate stance on immigration after losing the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election.
Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor, said Republicans appear to be making some inroads with the Hispanic electorate.
"The critical issue is going to be whether or not they support the immigration bill," he said.
There are still Republican factions strongly opposed to any measure that would allow immigrants in the country illegally to gain a legal status and remain in the U.S. At the bill's first hearing Friday, a number of Republicans raised questions about the bill and the nation's current immigration system in light of the Boston Marathon bombings. The two suspects came to the U.S. about 10 years ago from Dagestan, which neighbors Chechnya in southern Russia. There was no suggestion they had entered the U.S. illegally.
At the gathering at the Biltmore Hotel in Miami's Coral Gables neighborhood, conservative lawmakers urged leaders to turn down the rhetoric and focus on the issues.
"The extremes do not represent either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party," Diaz-Balart said.
Both Rubio and Bush have been mentioned as possible 2016 presidential candidates. Bush opened the conference Thursday with praise for the Senate immigration bill. He said it struck a good balance between the immigrant experience and respect for the rule of law.
"They've come up with a comprehensive, really detailed approach that I applaud," Bush said.
Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American, switched between English and a strong Spanish during his appearances. He left office with high ratings among Hispanic voters.
"I think that Jeb has lots of potential to help the Republican Party back in the running with Latino voters," Barreto said.
Diaz-Balart said he was optimistic Congress would reach an agreement on immigration that could be sent to the president.
"I think that first step in the House will be soon," he said. "And I think in spite of the fact we're going to have differences, there seems to be the willingness to focus on solutions."
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