HOUSTON, TEXAS — In a flexing of its growing political muscle, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) welcomed to their convention this week two Republicans who have their eye on the White House: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. At the event, the group unveiled a challenge to presidential candidates to pledge support for four “pillars” of immigration reform: “No amnesty, secure borders, secure families, and an integration process.” But the millions-strong Evangelical group showed little interest in holding Bush or Huckabee’s feet to the fire on what they claim is their make-or-break issue.
At a press conference Wednesday, Huckabee said he would not even consider supporting immigration reform until the US/Mexico border is further militarized.
“The first thing you do is not go down to Home Depot and shop for a faucet. You stop the leak. And the first thing we have to do is to control our border,” he said. “Once we have convinced the American people that we’re serious about that, then I think Americans are willing to have a rational and sensible but just approach to the process.”
When pressed on whether he would ever support a path to legal status or citizenship for undocumented people, he responded: “You’re asking me to get to second base, but we haven’t gotten to first yet.” As for the NHCLC’s immigration reform pledge, Huckabee told ThinkProgress: “I haven’t read it, so it would be hard to commit to signing something I haven’t read. I won’t even sign a bank note I haven’t read.”
Huckabee was seated directly next to NHCLC president Samuel Rodriguez as he said this — the man who earlier that day had vowed that religious Latino voters will abandon Republicans who don’t get on board with immigration reform, including a path to legal status for undocumented people in the United States.
But not only did Huckabee’s speech to the roughly thousand conference attendees get multiple standing ovations, Rodriguez publicly bestowed a blessing on him, booming into the microphone: “Righteous God, we thank you, we give you honor and glory for the life the ministry and the calling and the assignment of Mike Huckabee, we know you have great things in store for him, you have already put so many good things in his life… In these difficult days in our nation, you have gifted him and called him to be light in the midst of darkness.”
Huckabee’s speech barely touched on immigration, focusing instead on his impoverished childhood and religious calling. “I don’t speak Spanish…but I do speak Jesus,” he said, a line that won raucous cheers from the audience.
The other major speaker at the conference, Jeb Bush, showed off his ability to speak both Spanish and Jesus earlier Wednesday — and offered much stronger support for reforming the nation’s immigration system. In his speech, Bush endorsed a plan similar to the one that passed the Senate but stalled in the House in 2013.
“We have to fix the broken immigration system, and that means controlling the border and making sure legal immigration is easier than illegal,” Bush said. “But it also means dealing with 11 million undocumented workers… where they pay a fine, they work, they do what they want to do which is come out of the shadows, provide for their families and over a period of time get earned legal status.”
Attendees from around the country told ThinkProgress they were impressed with the speech.
“He was very clear when speaking about immigration: he supports reform for immigrants,” Pastor Jorge Florian of the Houston church Fuente de Dios said in Spanish. “I know he’s not even the official nominee for President yet, but for me Jeb Bush has a lot of potential, in part because of his legacy, his father.”
“I like that he put a lot of emphasis on education, and I think that’s really important, because the dropout rate from where I’m from is really high, and is a lot of Hispanics,” added Daisy Gonzalez, a young Hispanic evangelical from Del Rio, Texas. “The fact that [Jeb Bush] comes from a Christian family and a great family as well… Because if they have these important values in their life, what makes you think they’re not going to implement them in your country?”
Martaliana Ponce, a Colombian national whose family lives in Miami, said what caught her attention “was what he said about educating our young people, especially those who are low-income. I also like that he’s for uniting families. It’s so sad that there are families where the parents can’t even see their children because the country won’t let them enter.”
Yet some at the conference voiced doubt that Bush’s rhetoric on immigration would translate into concrete policies that help Latino families.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who addressed the conference Tuesday, told reporters he was recently asked by students at the University of Chicago which Republican presidential candidate he could best work with on immigration. He named Jeb Bush, in part because of his sympathetic rhetoric about immigrants and in part because George W. Bush tried to pass immigration reform while president.
“I don’t think the words had left my mouth when it entered the blogosphere and everyone said it was the kiss of death,” Gutierrez said. “Right after I said that thing about Jeb Bush he said, ‘I want to revoke the President’s executive order to let 5 million people get their papers.’ I hope my kind words didn’t cause him to take that kind of position.”
Looking ahead toward the 2016 race, Bush has shown himself more willing to voice positions that satisfy the conservative rank and file, who generally endorse reform but only in highly qualified versions, and who already view him as too moderate on the issue. But after the 2012 election, the Republican party underwent serious soul-searching on their outreach to Hispanics and Latinos, publishing a report that noted the dramatic drop in support from the demographic and calling on future GOP candidates to court the group and endorse some form of immigration reform. What’s less clear is whether Bush and Huckabee’s God-talk will be enough to muster a new GOP coalition that includes this group of Hispanic faithful, or if fluctuating stances on the undocumented will leave the party once again abandoned by the rapidly-expanding voting block.