Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.
San Diego, California (CNN) -- Given how toxic the GOP brand is to many Latinos, it's ironic that the first Republican presidential debate will be on Cinco de Mayo.
On May 5, a handful of GOP hopefuls are expected to gather in Greenville, South Carolina, for the first Republican presidential debate. One subject that is sure to come up is immigration.
In fact, any Republican who runs for president next year can expect to be asked about immigration, early and often. There are three reasons for this: the issue is unresolved since Congress has ducked the subject since 2007; conflict is interesting, and journalists know that Republicans alienate Hispanic voters with their immigration views; and, with the Census confirming the United States is 16% Hispanic -- in large part because of immigration -- changing demographics is on the minds of many Americans.
So, Republicans have to figure out how to talk about immigration. That's not as easy as it sounds.
Just ask Donald Trump, who recently came out tied for the lead among potential 2012 GOP contenders. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll of likely GOP voters found Trump tied with Mike Huckabee at 19%. Sarah Palin came in second, with 12%. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were tied in third place, each with 11%.
Trump was asked about immigration in June during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live." Specifically, King asked Trump what he thought of Arizona's immigration law, which requires local and state police to enforce federal immigration law. This week, the law sustained another blow when a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling striking down major portions of it as unconstitutional.
Trump defended the Arizona law as necessary because of what he contended was the federal government's failure to control the border. He insisted the people in Arizona had legitimate concerns about border security and drug violence. Besides, he said, anyone in the United States illegally should leave. But Trump also acknowledged that he wasn't sure that many Americans would do the jobs that get done by illegal immigrants.
Palin has also been an outspoken defender of the Arizona law. In August, she commended Gov. Jan Brewer -- a major booster of the law -- for having "the cojones that our president does not have." Repeating the conservative talking point that Arizona had to act because the federal government didn't, Palin declared: "If our own president will not enforce our federal law, more power to Jan Brewer."
Romney, who was an outspoken critic of Sen. John McCain's comprehensive immigration reform bill during the 2008 presidential campaign, wouldn't go that far. He didn't endorse the Arizona law, but nor did he criticize it. All he would say is that he hoped "that the law will be implemented with care and caution not to single out individuals based upon their ethnicity."
Last April, Huckabee criticized the Arizona law as the wrong approach and predicted it would face "a plethora of lawsuits." Huckabee added that, while the federal government has to do something to stop illegal immigration, "Hispanic Americans have the right to be unhappy about the fact that they might be pulled over."
Gingrich has offered a little something for everyone. In May, he defended the Arizona law and accused President Obama of engaging in "what I think was a racist dialogue to try to frighten Latinos away from the Republican Party." But in December, Gingrich came out in favor of a "zone between deportation and amnesty" that would allow illegal immigrants to work legally in the United States, calling it "common sense."
What doesn't make sense is how most Republican officials approach the immigration issue. They can't seem to talk about it in an honest way that eschews racism, acknowledges labor needs, and holds everyone accountable. The message is bad, and the tone is worse. It's almost always us against them, with Latinos on the "them" side. And while Republicans insist they have nothing against legal immigrants, a number of Republican elected officials at the state and federal level are now talking about the need to limit all immigration -- including the legal kind.
Republican candidates for president should approach the issue with a tone that is firm and principled but also honest and compassionate. They can start by admitting that illegal immigrants do jobs that many Americans won't do at any wage, emphasizing that at least some illegal immigrants in the United States should have a pathway to earned legal status if they meet certain conditions, and condemning unequivocally the racism and nativism that hurt their party and poison this debate.
If the GOP presidential hopefuls do that, they'll avoid the pitfalls that Republicans always seem to face in discussing the immigration issue. Then they can propose their ideas for something that this debate has always lacked: solutions.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.