Hispanic social conservatives may leave GOP over immigration stance

Posted: 12/27/07

Hispanic social conservatives may
leave GOP over immigration stance

By Hannah Elliott

Associated Baptist Press

NEW YORK (ABP)—Republican presidential candidates who appeal to fears over immigration in the primary campaigns risk alienating an important constituency—conservative Hispanics—religious leaders in several early primary states said.

In a conference call with reporters, Hispanic evangelicals and other leaders urged candidates to “reject hateful speech” regarding immigration.

The event came just days after a Pew Hispanic Center study found that many conservative Hispanics have reacted negatively to Republican stances on immigration and are even considering leaving the party because of it.

Leaders of the conference, hosted by Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, said Republican candidates are manipulating immigrants for political gain by issuing attack ads that accuse competitors of being “soft” on immigration.

Luis Cortes, president of the Latino evangelical group Esperanza USA, confirmed the survey’s results. A visible ally of President Bush during the 2004 elections, he has since reconsidered his political alliances.

“The Republican Party, in an attempt to galvanize the states … has blamed the individuals as opposed to the government for inaction,” said Cortes, who founded the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast. “With Hispanic people today, there is a lot of fear in our communities.”

Indeed, the Pew study found that more than 50 percent of all Hispanic adults in the United States “worry that they, a family member, or a close friend, could be deported.” Nearly two out of three said congressional failure to enact immigration reform has made life more difficult for all U.S. Latinos.

That has caused some Hispanic clergy to move away from Republican positions they previously held—and away from the perception that the GOP is the party of family values, Cortes said.

“More and more of our people are being turned off by the Republican Party and are being turned off to the point that they say they will not vote for a Republican candidate,” he added.

In the survey of 2,003 Hispanic adults, 57 percent identified with the Democratic Party, while 23 percent considered themselves Republicans. Two years ago, that gap was much narrower.

Cortes noted that his organization, which represents more than 10,000 Hispanic churches and organizations nationwide, has struggled to get public statements supporting their position from “celebrity” evangelical leaders. However, he said, Catholic leaders have been more eager to engage in the discussion.

The current level of debate has failed to advance the political process toward immigration reform, Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Fla., said.

The nation deserves to hear “some solid proposals” from those “who want to be entrusted with leading,” he said. Wenski serves as the international-policy chairman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The failure of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform last June has kept the debate alive … and unfortunately our presidential candidates are allowing themselves to be co-opted into the divisiveness of the debate,” Wenski said. “The debate has been basically political posturing, and we don’t see any of the candidates rising to address the issue as a leader of vision should.”

In the last two years, Congress twice has tried and failed to pass a comprehensive plan to deal with illegal immigration, although federal, state and local governments have enacted regulations aimed at mitigating the problem. Many of the new procedures include increased workplace raids, deportations and restrictions for illegal immigrants.

The new state and local policies have hit undocumented Hispanic workers the hardest. Of the 47 million Hispanics currently living in the United States, about 25 percent are illegal immigrants, according to the Pew survey.

Churches should set the tone for how such regulations take effect, Hispanic evangelical leaders said.

“Being tough on immigration doesn’t mean you’re tough on undocumented people,” Cortes said.

Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, said one of his responsibilities as a minister is to ensure his church members understand it’s never right to speak or act in ways that “dehumanize and endanger others.”

Hard work is needed to craft national legislation, but “pandering” in the political realm destroys the chance of realizing that goal, he said.

“The speech that is destructive and inflammatory and hateful is absolutely counterintuitive,” Harkins contended. “Wherever we are in the spectrum of this, we do not have the right to speak in ways that marginalize.”

Cortes added that, in his travels around the country in attempts to garner support for his group, he tells churches that morality and legality are two separate things.

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