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Conservatives at CPAC Rally for Border Enforcement

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Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011. (AP)

WASHINGTON – Conservatives spoke out Thursday in favor of stepping up border enforcement while criticizing so-called reform plans they dismiss as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants in speeches and panel discussions at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The Republican leadership in Washington isn't expected to raise immigration as a front-burner issue in the near term, they said, but conservatives are even more skeptical of any “immigration reform” proposals that might bubble up from the Obama administration or from bipartisan ranks.

“Anybody that brings up amnesty in this Congress, we need to just take the scarlet 'A' for amnesty and pin it on them,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has been a big driver for tough immigration laws in Congress.

King told an audience at CPAC that there is some measure of hope: the new House majority and 87 Republican freshman that have come up largely through the Tea Party ranks should be expected to hold the line against“comprehensive reform,” especially amnesty. “I don’t think anything comes through this Congress that grants amnesty.”

The “amnesty” he refers to is a measure included in past comprehensive reform bills that would allow illegal workers -- some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States -- a chance to stay in the country to earn a green card under a "guest worker program," or return home and be fast-tracked for a green card in order to return. Both proposals have failed to advance.

Though the immigration issue was clearly not the hottest topic at CPAC this year, those who did seek to raise it pointed to Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who passed a law in her state last year that would give police more power to arrest and deport illegal aliens there. She was subsequently sued by the Justice Department, arguing that the law is unconstitutional; Brewer announced on Thursday that Arizona will countersue on grounds that the federal government has failed to enforce its own immigration laws.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who spoke at CPAC on an immigration policy panel, said he helped to write the Arizona law, and insists that “enforcement through attrition” is the only way to go – that the states, and the federal government, step up their enforcement and the rate of illegal immigration will be sure to decline.

“You ratchet the level of law enforcement … to ensure that it is in their (illegal immigrants’) best interest to follow the law and in their case, just go home,” said Kobach, who said he is also working on ways to restrict the babies of illegal immigrants from automatically becoming citizens at the state level. “Arizona has shown on a statewide level that you can do exactly that, in fact, Arizona is the model for attrition through enforcement.”

Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, told FoxNews.com that he believes immigration will in fact get more play in the next Congress because of the Tea Party influence on the GOP landscape. “It’s moved up significantly” on the ladder of priorities, he asserted. “In the Tea Party, everyone is pro-law enforcement,” he noted, adding that it was “harder to be open borders” in the Republican Party today.

Of course, there are Republicans, particularly pro-business and some libertarians, who side with a more “open borders,” less stringent approach to immigration, but they were not represented on any CPAC panel scheduled for this weekend.

The issue of immigration may be hot in Arizona which shares a porous border with Mexico, but statistics show that the illegal immigration has actually declined over the last three years, dropping 8 percent from a peak of 12 million in 2007, according to a September report by the Pew Hispanic Center. One explanation is the number of jobs that usually attract illegals has declined, like new housing construction; the other, which Krikorian prefers, is that enforcement is working.

When asked if immigration is expected to take center stage in the Republican primaries, Krikorian said “it’s too early to tell,” but believes that support for Arizona’s right to enforce immigration laws would be a “litmus test for people on the right.”

Bart Frazier, a spokesman for the more libertarian-leaning Future of Freedom Foundation, said he wouldn’t be surprised if GOP candidates were “put on the spot” on their immigration views in the coming campaign, but doesn’t see any practical movement of the issue in Washington.

“I don’t think they want to ouch it – it’s such a political hot potato,” said Frazier. “I think if they could totally avoid talking about it they would.”