HOUSTON, TEXAS — Just a few hours before hearing speeches from likely Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, the nation’s largest Hispanic Evangelical organization threw down the gauntlet and called on them and others running for the White House to pledge support for immigration reform.
“Republicans must cross the Jordan of immigration reform to step into the promised land of the Hispanic faith electorate,” said National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Sam Rodriguez at a press conference in Houston on Wednesday. “There’s a period there, not a comma. They must.” He then referenced Mitt Romney’s abysmal performance with Latino voters, which Rodriguez tied to his support for “self deportation” policies, as a cautionary tale.
The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) leans sharply conservative, with a long history of opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights. But on the issue of immigration, they align more with President Obama, whose executive actions to protect parents and children from deportation they “reluctantly support.”
The exact text of the pledge has not been revealed, but Rodriguez said it includes four “pillars”: “No amnesty, secure borders, secure families, and an integration process” for the roughly 12 million undocumented people living in the United States. Over the next several months, the group will challenge all presidential candidates to sign on to support comprehensive immigration reform that “secures our values and our families.” If they don’t, Rodriguez warned, “they’re going to discard a vote that has natural tendencies with the GOP.”
That vote emerges out of a rapidly-expanding population of Hispanic Evangelicals, which some estimate is around 5.6 million strong — and growing every year.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), one of the few Democrats to speak at the conference, wryly noted, “One million Latinos turn 18 every year and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. You can’t shut down that faucet. That happens even if there’s not one more immigrant.”
Several leaders from the wider evangelical community also voiced support for immigration reform at the event, including Galen Carey, Vice President of Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The NAE did not announce a similar pledge, and Carey was less willing to say that GOP candidates would lose all evangelical support if they opposed immigration reform. But he did note that candidates who use negative rhetoric to attack immigrants could hemorrhage some white evangelical Christian voters, roughly half of whom now support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented persons.
“The issue is frankly one that’s easy to demagogue,” Carey said. “Some people are able to stoke up people’s fears by talking negatively about immigrants. That’s a fact. We think that responsible politicians have a responsibility not to do that. They have a responsibility to present positive solutions. If they do that, they are going to receive support from our community.”
Surveying the current crop of 2016 candidates, Rodriguez had praise for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, though he lamented that after co-authoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill, “Senator Rubio has backtracked ever since.” His harshest critique was for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who he accused of “building a wall rather than a bridge” with the immigrant community. “His rhetoric on immigration reform is not resonating at all with the HIspanic faith community, and that’s putting it mildly,” said Rodriguez. “He represents the past while others have looked towards the future.”
He also voiced support for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, an invited speaker at the NHCLC conference: “Mike is an Evangelical. I do believe he has a strong Christian faith. He’s a very compassionate man.”
Yet Huckabee has recently cozied up to anti-immigration hard-liners like Rep. Steve King (R-IA). King not only opposes any form of immigration reform or deportation relief, he wants to strip away US citizenship from children of immigrants.
Gutierrez also took Huckabee to task for his stance on the crisis of tens of thousands of children from Central America, in which he advocated further militarizing the border and turning away and deporting the unaccompanied minors. Huckabee claimed the children came “because they heard there is a bowl of food just across the border,” though investigations have found gang and drug activity and political and economic violence to be the driving forces.
Challenging the NHCLC about their invitation to Huckabee, Gutierrez said: “I hope you’d ask him, ‘Governor Huckabee, really? The children came because they wanted free food? They risked their lives, faced rapists and murders, came all those thousands of miles in the hands of human smugglers, for free food?”
Citing other examples of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the GOP, Gutierrez continued: “The Republican party finds itself in quite a predicament. They can’t be a national party if they don’t address this.”