Immigration Could Cost GOP Latino Evangelicals

Evangelical Christians in the U.S. Latino community have supported Republican candidates in recent years — but now that allegiance may be threatened by calls from prominent Republicans for more restrictive immigration policies. Madeleine Brand talks to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference about the divisive debate over immigration policy.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

(Soundbite of woman speaking foreign language)

BRAND: Terrorists are coming across our borders, drugs smuggled to America's shores. That's a new Spanish language radio ad produced by the Republican National Committee. The ad is designed to remind Latino's that border security keeps families safe.

CHADWICK: Latino evangelicals usually vote Republican, but the immigration debate has become a wedge issue. It divides Latino evangelicals and the Republican Party; it also divides Latino's from other evangelicals.

BRAND: Earlier this month, an association of Latino evangelicals sent a letter to Washington calling for a fair and reasonable immigration bill. They want Republicans to embrace President Bush's guest worker program that would eventually allow undocumented workers to become U.S. Citizens. Reverend Samuel Rodriguez of Sacramento, California signed his name to that letter. He told me recently that if the Republican Party remains intent on punishing illegal immigrants, then Latino evangelicals may not be as inclined to vote Republican.

Reverend SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ (President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference): I believe presently it's, it's presented a, a very precarious situation for the Republican Party, to say the least. The final outcomes will determine whether or not this largely, fastly growing demographic, the Latino evangelical base, which is currently somewhere close to fifteen-million strong, will continue to vote Republican or for conservative candidates.

BRAND: So, are you looking at this as a test issue?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: It is a test issue. The number one advocate for comprehensive immigration reform happens to be the commander in chief and the defacto leader of the Party in the White House. And then, the most animate, and those that are most vehemently opposed, to comprehensive immigration reform are Republicans in the House. So, what it looks like at the end of the day, what may happen is that Latino evangelicals may end up continuing to exhibit their allegiance to national Republican figures that are more open to the immigrant community, and that are more open to Latino's, in general; but, not supportive at a local level, at a Congressional or a Senate level.

BRAND: You are part of the National Association of Evangelicals. This is the umbrella organization; it did not sign this letter that you signed to the president and to the Senate, indicating that it does not support these changes in immigration law.

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: I don't think it necessarily clearly demonstrates a lack of support, but rather the NAE reflects the same disagreement. I don't believe it's a schism, I believe it's a dis--disagreement, a legitimate disagreement within the evangelical community. As a result of that, the NAE cannot necessarily sign that letter because of the specificities that we outline in that letter.

BRAND: Well, does this agreement come down on racial and ethnic lines?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: You know what, the majority of white evangelicals are looking at this issue exclusively from the prism of the rule of law; Law and order, the application of the rule of law. Not only is it important, but Hispanic evangelicals resonate with that. We want to protect our borders. Absolutely. We want to assure the sovereignty of our nation. Nonetheless, we must, as evangelicals, by our very definition, look at it also from the Biblical world view.

BRAND: So what's the Biblical world view?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: The Biblical view would be the Leviticus 19 principle. We can't be evangelicals and negate scripture, by our very definition of who we are. And if we look at scripture, and we look at the call, to make sure we treat the alien, according to Leviticus, let's treat the alien, the immigrant, the foreigner, as if he or she were one of our own. And in the New Testament, the Good Samaritan parable.

BRAND: And what does the other side say to that? What do the white evangelicals say to that when you raised that point?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: The white evangelicals would say that's good, but the adherence to the, be submissive to the order of government and laws, which is also in scripture, that supercedes the Leviticus 19 and the Good Samaritan parable. We would say from, from more--from a theological standpoint they, they work in, in a complementary manner. They don't supercede--one does not supercede the other. They must work hand in hand.

BRAND: Well, so how do you convince the other side that there should be a guest worker program as part of Leviticus, as you say?

Rev RODRIGUEZ: There is a notion out there, according to the Pew Research, that 64 percent find immigrants to be a burden. 63 percent find the immigrant community to be a threat to the American culture. And what we are stating is, look, this Latino community is fastly becoming evangelical. You have nothing to fear. In the matter of fact, they resonate with the value system of the majority of evangelicals: God fearing, family loving, family values, hard working, a Calvinistic work ethic. The second thing we need to do is let them know that we are as equally concerned about border protection and the rule of law and the application of the rule of law as they are.

That's why the Hispanic evangelical community is not calling for amnesty, is not calling for open borders. We are calling for border security as particularly after 9/11, but also to defend the immigrant. The only thing we bring up is deportation; not only is it not practical, from a Christian perspective it's just not the right thing to do, because we're supposed to be the community obsessed with family values. How can we, as an evangelical community, endorse legislation that has the possibility of disenfranchising 12 million families?

And here's how it would happen. Parents would go back to their countries, the children who are born here would stay and the parents would not take them back with them. The parents came here to offer their children better life, better hope; this American dream. When children are raised without parents there are some definitive social economic consequences to our communities.

BRAND: Let me ask you this, is it enough, this House Bill that you oppose, is it enough to drive you into the arms of the Democrats?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: Heh. No, we haven't come to that point yet. And, and by Democrats--we're non-partisan. We have members in our constituency that are Democrats, and we have members that are Republican. What we're looking at--I'm speaking collectively in respect to the Latino evangelical ethos, who are becoming more and more loyal, faithful supporters of a conservative traditionalist agenda. They vote more on the values--they have been voting more and more Republican in the past two election cycles than ever before. If Sensenbrenner legislation is enacted, or if the Senate does not present a viable solution that succeeds through conference and is signed by the president that's comprehensive, then there's a great possibility that many of these Latino evangelicals will say, in the day where we most needed support, we were abandoned by the party we were most supporting. Therefore, there is a possibility of many Latino evangelicals leaving one party and shifting over towards another.

BRAND: Reverend Samuel Rodriguez heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; he joined us from Sacramento, thank you.

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having me.

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