When Donald Trump used the word “criminals” to describe illegal immigrants from Mexico, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly called his comments “extremely counterproductive.”
Now, listen to the more personal language that Gonzalo Ferrer, the national chairman of the group, uses to describes Mr. Trump’s most recent contributions to the immigration debate: “Extremely bigoted, offensive to all Hispanic-Americans, unconstitutional . . . and self-defeating.”
Mr. Trump, he said, shows “reckless disregard for the harm he is causing to Republican Hispanic-American families and to the Republican cause.”
These are troubling days for many people trying to promote the Republican Party and conservative ideals to Hispanic voters. Concern over the tone adopted by some GOP candidates has turned to alarm.
An immigration debate that long turned on sensitive matters—such as whether to provide some kind of legal status to undocumented workers—is now focusing on more explosive issues. Those include the idea of deporting millions of illegal immigrants and ending “birthright citizenship,” the 147-year-old principle that anyone born on U.S. soil is a U.S. citizen, even if his or her parents entered the country illegally.
Both ideas were embraced by Mr. Trump over the weekend.
More than anything so far, some conservative Hispanic leaders say, these ideas cause Hispanic voters to question whether they have a home in the GOP. “Basically, they are saying, ‘We don’t want you. Get out,’ ” said Mr. Ferrer, a San Francisco attorney and certified public accountant, referring to Mr. Trump’s most recent proposals.
Many in the GOP disagree with Mr. Trump, but his ideas also have a base of support. “His immigration plan will resonate with a broad cross-section of grassroots voters, particularly tea-party and conservative voters,” said Mark Meckler, a nationally known tea-party-aligned activist, in a written statement this week.
Moreover, other GOP presidential candidates agree with Mr. Trump that birthright citizenship should be abandoned. They include Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Mr. Trump himself says his plans are aimed at ending an influx of cheap, foreign labor that “holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high and makes it difficult for poor and working-class Americans . . . to earn a middle-class wage.”
But Hispanic conservatives say these ideas are toxic.
“It’s making our effort to advance free-market, conservative principles to Latinos more difficult,” said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Intiative, a nonpartisan group that advances “the principles of economic freedom” to Hispanics and is partly funded by conservative donors Charles and David Koch.
Ending birthright citizenship is a particular affront to Hispanics, several people who follow the issue said, because it directly affects children and undermines a core American ideal.
“It’s deeply ingrained in the nation of America that people come here from all over, and from every range of circumstance — but once you’re here, it’s your future to make,”’ said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, which sees benefits in immigration and advocates for an overhaul of immigration law.
Ending birthright citizenship “has been kind of one of the third rails of the immigration debate,” she said, adding that she worried about its potential to become a mainstream idea.
“This is not what America does. We don’t pick on children. And we don’t break families up. That’s not the solution,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the nonpartisan U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which says it represents 3.2 million Hisapnic-owned firms.
Mr. Trump argues that birthright citizenship makes the U.S. a magnet for illegal immigrants. The principle is embedded in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868 to ensure citizenship and legal protections for African-Americans. Some conservatives argue that the amendment has been misread and that the citizenship rule can be changed by legislation.
One question is whether Hispanic voters will come to see Mr. Trump as speaking for the entire Republican Party, a perception that will likely be shaped by how many other GOP candidates agree with his policies or push back against them forcefully.
Mr. Garza noted that in the 2014 elections, many Republican candidates posted strong numbers among Hispanic voters. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback won 47% of the Hispanic vote on his way to re-election, exit polls showed, and Sen. Pat Roberts won 46%. In Texas, Sen. John Cornyn won 48% of the Hispanic vote. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal won 47% of Hispanics.
All those numbers are stronger than the 45% share nationally, more or less, that many analysts say the GOP likely will need next year to take the White House.
But the immigration debate could make it hard to post numbers like those in 2016, “which is something we should consider, those of us on the conservative side,” said Mr. Garza. “That now may be in jeopardy.”