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February 15th, 2008
10:55 AM ET

Race, Gender & Politics: Immigration reform

The Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is young, energetic.  As President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference with ties to some 18 thousand Latino Evangelical Churches,  he is also very influential.  That may be bad news for Republican Senator John McCain. 

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Hispanic Christians are, says Rodriguez, concerned with immigration reform. It is, he told us, their top-tier issue. And the Republican Party dropped the ball, says the California Pastor: "I would never have imagined that in my lifetime certain states in certain communities because of my last name and the color of my skin I would have to prove my citizenship in order to get healthcare, in order to get an apartment, in order to lease anything.  Even if I have some sort of driving incident I would have to prove my citizenship.  That's America's post-immigration debacle.  Who's responsible? The Republican Party.  Who will pay in the 2008 elections? The Republican Party."

It is not what I expected to hear from a conservative, from an Evangelical Christian. But Rodriguez says he never expected to hear what he's heard: "rhetoric and demagoguery" from the Republican Party on immigration reform. The demagoguery, he says, hurt all Republican candidates, even one like McCain who tried to find common ground on immigration. McCain supported a bipartisan immigration reform bill that failed to pass. Rodriguez said that may not be enough to sway Hispanics: "Will Latinos be able to look at John McCain and say we're gonna support the party because of you and in spite of your party! That's the question that will be answered Nov. 4th."


Staunchly Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, agrees.  Many Hispanics are hurt by what she calls, "negative rhetoric, almost bigoted about the Hispanic community."  But, Ros-Lehtinen, who always delivers the Cuban-American vote for Republicans,  believes Senator McCain can win a substantial number of Hispanic votes.  They will vote for him, Ros-Lehtinen says because, "John McCain has a long history of reaching out to Hispanic groups.  After all, he's a Senator from Arizona, a border state.  He understands the problems that Hispanics face.  That's why he has received more of a sympathetic vote from the Hispanic community, whether it's Cuban-American or not."

But, the 38-year-old Rodriguez, born in the United States of Puerto Rican descent, says, "I am hard-pressed to understand where the Republican Party could have just alienated such a natural constituency..."

If you think Rodriguez' position on immigration is embraced by all Latinos in the United States, you'd be wrong.  The issue is not as cut and dried as it might seem.  Opinions among Hispanics seem to resemble more a mosaic than a solid wall.   "The problem of America, Ros-Lehtinen says, is not immigration-made."  Many agree. 

I spent some time with Connie Morales on Wednesday in Orlando.  She moved to this country as a teenager in 1963. From Colombia, Morales and her family settled in New York.  She's semi-retired now.  Since becoming a citizen, she has voted Republican.  Morales says this time she won't.  But here's the twist.  While she believes there must be immigration reform, it is not the issue driving her away from the Republican Party.  I asked Morales if she sympathized with the situation facing illegal immigrants.

"Not really.  We don't with the Mexicans," she says. "We don't that much because we had a hard time getting here.  We have to get in line.  We have to get the papers.  We have to get visas."

John McCain won't get her vote but not because of his stand on immigration reform.  McCain is stressing securing the border as a first priority and then addressing a guest worker program.  Senator McCain won't get her vote because she says, "The Republicans had eight years already and they had a chance to improve things but they didn't." 

The most important election issue for Morales?  The economy. 

Puerto Rican born Marytza Sanz is a Democrat.  She's founder of a nonprofit organization Latino Leadership in Orlando which registers Hispanics to vote.  Like Connie Morales, immigration is important to Sanz but it won't determine who she votes for.  Her issue is also the economy. There is no separate set of issues for Hispanics says Sanz: "the Republican party, they have done a very bad job reaching at our needs; that our needs as Latino is the same needs that the whole country has."

As a hot button issue, Immigration reform may be the tip of the spear.  It will certainly drive, and already has, many Hispanics to the polls.  But it is far from all they are concerned with.  What I found out.  What they made very clear to me was that they like all Americans are worried about the economy, the war, health care.  If John McCain hopes to win a sizable chunk of the Hispanic vote he's going to have to satisfy Latinos on more than just the issue of immigration.

– John Zarrella, 360° Correspondent

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