Senator Rand Paul at a forum on immigration organized by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
As Senator Rand Paul delivered his keynote speech on immigration reform at yesterday's gathering of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, anxieties about the GOP’s identity crisis rippled through the room. The likely 2016 presidential hopeful spoke briefly in Spanish before discussing his Christian faith and opposition to abortion. He assured his audience he got them: “Man’s humanity to man is how we will be judged,” he said.
The religious undertone of Paul’s remarks stood in stark contrast to the rest of the event, which focused on the economic and border-security provisions of the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, currently being debated on the floor of the Senate. This highlights the competing interests pro-reform Republicans are scrambling to satisfy. On the one hand, pro-reform religious conservatives talk about family, human dignity and the biblical imperative to “welcome the stranger,” in this case by offering the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country a path to citizenship. Other conservatives—including Paul, who is sponsoring an amendment to strengthen the border-security provisions in the bill—talk tough on enforcement, and, like other speakers at Wednesday’s event, emphasize free-market opportunities for workers.
Paul’s clumsy balancing act between religious conservatives, Latinos, and nativists shows his party’s troubled path to electoral relevance: Don’t leave the religious right behind—no chance of that, as the Republican National Committee has just hired a new evangelical outreach director—and stop alienating Latinos. Here was the audience of both, but instead of speaking their language and addressing the call for legalization, the event’s organizers fixated on temporary-worker visas and enforcement. The GOP wants to capture both the evangelical Latino vote as well as the law-and-order and business wing of the party, but refuses to acknowledge how they are at odds with each other.
Enter Paul, who seems to believe he can bridge the gap between Gang of Eight supporters and the intransigent Tea Partiers in the House. In this role, he was opening act for a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles—an arm of the American Principles Project (APP), a conservative think tank founded by the religious right’s leading intellectual, Princeton professor Robert George—and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the nation’s largest group of Latino evangelicals. The NHCLC is one of several conservative evangelical groups who’ve joined the Evangelical Immigration Table to lobby for reform, along with the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Sojourners, and others.
To be sure, Paul is more conversant with the APP’s conservative rhetoric of liberty than he is with the heavily Pentecostal NHCLC. But by pledging that his border-security amendment will pave the way for more Republican support, he did cast himself in a savior role. That was not lost on a member of the audience, who rose as Paul concluded his remarks to offer a blessing for the Senator, after which he added, “I hope he will be running for 2016.”
One of the panelists, Robert Gittleson, the NHCLC’s government affairs director, cautioned the Republicans not to repeat their 2012 failures by taking a hard line on immigration. Gittleson, who said he attends a Latino church in Los Angeles, recounted a meeting he had with NHCLC president Samuel Rodriguez and a top staffer on the Romney campaign. Gittleson said the pair tried to convince the Romney staffer “to embrace a more reasonable policy on immigration.” But the staffer pushed back, Gittleson said, “making an economic argument.” “You are making a good economic argument,” Gittleson said he replied, “but you are not going to win the Hispanic vote with that argument.”
Despite those words of wisdom, the other panelists largely focused on economic issues, including Helen Krieble and Tamar Jacoby, both proponents of expanded guest-worker visa programs. Alfonso Aguilar, the Latino Partnership’s executive director, and also a supporter of expanded guest-worker visas, made an argument that he has previously, that “most immigrants who come here don’t want to settle in the United States and become citizens.” Aguilar, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, criticized President Obama and Democrats for “condescending” to Latinos by saying that they favor a path to citizenship. “For you, especially, who pastor to communities, to people who are undocumented, hard workers, what do they want? They want to come out of the shadows, they’re not thinking of citizenship at this point.” An audience member in a clerical collar contested this point. “I don’t think anyone is expecting a special path to citizenship,” he said, but that immigrants do have a desire to achieve citizenship. Aguilar insisted that his view doesn’t “close the door to citizenship” but that undocumented immigrants should not be given a “special path” to it.
In the end, it seemed like no one in the room heeded Gittleson’s advice. The contrast with the rhetoric one hears from the Evangelical Immigration Table—dignity, family, faith, and a path to citizenship—was stark.
Latino evangelicals are a potentially target-rich audience for the GOP. While only 13% of Latinos nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latino evangelicals tend to be less Democratic than their Catholic and unaffiliated counterparts. They are, according to a survey by Public Religion Research Institute, much more likely to believe that abortion should be illegal than non-evangelical Latinos.
But it’s not the Latino evangelical vote per se that’s at stake, but rather a growing alliance of Latino and white evangelicals that’s changing what the religious right looks like for the GOP. A Public Religion Research Institute survey this spring found that a majority of white evangelicals favored a path to citizenship as long as legal requirements were met. More white evangelical pastors are talking about the immigration issue. And although immigration is not a deal breaker issue for white evangelicals like abortion or same-sex marriage, it could play a role in primaries for some of them.
Conservative religious leaders, both Latino and non-Latino, see the faces of their congregations changing. They’re looking at a new generation of religious conservatives, shaping the future of the religious right. The GOP says it needs them—but on the immigration issue it hasn’t figured out how to make them believers.