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updated 9/7/2006 3:17:52 PM ET 2006-09-07T19:17:52

House Republicans knew that leaders of liberal Hispanic organizations would castigate them for passing hard-edged legislation last December calling for 700 miles of new fencing on the U.S.-Mexican border and for elevating illegal immigration to a felony and making it a permanent disqualifier for American citizenship. What they didn't foresee was that the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., one of the most prominent Hispanic evangelicals to support President Bush's re-election, would turn against their party.

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The 48-year-old Baptist minister heads Esperanza USA, which bills itself as the nation's largest Hispanic faith-based community- development organization. It controls Nueva Esperanza (Spanish for "new hope"), a Philadelphia-based network of social services, including a charter high school, a community college, and a $28 million economic development program.

After the 2000 election, Bush's political team was determined to boost the president's support among Latino voters and correctly saw evangelical Hispanics -- nearly one-fifth of the Hispanic population -- as especially promising. Cortes became a focus of that strategy.

When Esperanza USA hosted the first National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in 2002, Bush was the star attraction; he would return to the annual event year after year. The administration began channeling millions of dollars into Cortes's organizations. The Health and Human Services Department's Compassion Capital Fund for faith-based programs gave Nueva Esperanza three grants totaling more than $7.4 million. Cortes was able to distribute much of the money to Hispanic churches and service organizations nationwide, thereby strengthening his standing within the Latino community. In July 2004, the Labor Department awarded $2.76 million to Esperanza USA for training at-risk Latino youths in Chicago, Miami, New York, Orlando, and Philadelphia.

For Bush, the evangelical Latino community proved to be an ideal target constituency, because in pursuing it the GOP could push the hot-button issues of abortion and gay rights in ways that had been powerfully effective among white evangelicals.

Courtship paid off in 2004
In 2004, the Bush administration's courtship paid off. Cortes, who had backed Ralph Nader in 2000, endorsed Bush. And on Election Day, Bush's share of the Hispanic vote rose from 31 percent to at least 40 -- with virtually all of the increase coming not from Catholics but from Protestant evangelicals like Cortes. After the election, Cortes told The New York Times, "I'm not red, and I'm not blue. I'm brown. You want an endorsement? Give us a check, and you can take a picture of us accepting it. Because then you've done something for brown."

But now, House Republicans' hard-line stands on immigration are clearly jeopardizing their party's gains among Hispanic evangelicals. Over the past year, in a shift frightening to GOP operatives, Cortes has become an outspoken critic of the House Republican leadership, warning of a massive exodus of Latinos from the GOP. "The Far Right is using rhetoric to frame [immigration] in a manner that convinces the majority of Americans that the only alternative is to hunt down and punish these 'drug-dealing people,' " Cortes told National Journal. Republican House leaders "have gone too far, a sign that they are desperate and have no true agenda for our country. They should be ashamed, and as a person of faith I have to believe that this will backfire, as it is clearly an act of cowardice."

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Philadelphia on July 5, Cortes testified that "immigration is the No. 1 issue of concern in our communities. For us, immigration is about family values, about work and living productive lives as contributing members of our communities. Millions of our people are known only to many as 'the undocumented.' Forty million Hispanic-American citizens have undocumented grandparents, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and children. They are not criminals, felons, or gang members, but taxpaying, law-abiding, hardworking members of our families and our communities."

The Bush administration and the Republican National Committee have sought to assuage the fears of their Latino supporters, but key Hispanic conservatives aren't sounding mollified. As he left a recent meeting of the RNC, the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, an outspoken advocate of the Right's social agenda, and a Bush loyalist, declared, "I pray for the soul of the Republican Party."

The glide path
Throughout 2004, the Bush administration's strategy of expanding its Hispanic support, especially among Protestant evangelicals, was on a glide path. The GOP's conservative stands on social issues, including gay marriage, abortion, and school prayer, resonated powerfully among the growing numbers of Latino parishioners at Pentecostal and Baptist churches. The administration's faith-based initiatives, in turn, funneled hundreds of grants to Hispanic churches and religious groups, many of them Protestant and evangelical.

In 2004, there were 40.5 million Hispanics in the United States, up from 26.6 million a decade earlier and substantially more than the 34.8 million African-Americans. However, in 2004, only half as many Hispanics as blacks voted, according to the American National Election Studies, because of lower registration and turnout rates, and higher percentages of noncitizens and children. But the Hispanic vote is expected to overtake the black vote in little more than a generation.

The Hispanic vote is especially important in the Southwest, which is rapidly becoming a swing region with the power to decide presidential elections. In Arizona in 2004, 12 percent of voters were Hispanic, exit polls found, as were 8 percent in Colorado, 10 percent in Nevada, and 32 percent in New Mexico. And in two other Sun Belt states -- Texas and Florida -- the continuation of Republican political dominance will likely depend on whether the party can boost its popularity among Hispanics. By 2004, Hispanics already made up 20 percent of the Texas electorate and 15 percent of Florida's. In every one of these states, Latino voters substantially outnumber black voters.

Hispanics are also the major source of new parishioners in many evangelical denominations. For example, of the 2.8 million members of the Assemblies of God USA, about 500,000 are Hispanic, with Latinos accounting for 52 percent of the growth of that church from 1992 to 2002. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said that his denomination has succeeded in expanding into the Hispanic and black communities: "Our denomination is now 80 percent Anglo. In 1970, it was 100 percent Anglo. It's changed with direct intentionality."

Bush's courting of Latino religious leaders was well received during his re-election campaign. Just two weeks before the election, leaders of prominent groups on the Religious Right joined with many Hispanic evangelical ministers to hold an "America for Jesus" rally on the National Mall that featured many signs supporting the Bush campaign. Sherry Cropper, 39, of Wilmington, Del., who brought two such signs to the rally, told The Washington Times, "President Bush stands for the godly morals and values that founded this country. John Kerry speaks of the interest of the opposing voice to God."

And the rally's organizer, Bishop John Gimenez, senior pastor of the 5,000-member Rock Church in Virginia Beach, warned, "Our nation is in a severe moral decline. From pornography and homosexuality to abortion to racism, this country is out of control."

In addition to Gimenez, Cortes, and Miguel Rivera, the event brought together such Latino religious leaders as the Rev. Dennis Rivera of the Spanish Central District of the Assemblies of God; the Rev. Rudy Hernandez of the Southern Baptist Convention in Texas; and the Rev. Daniel de Leon of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, Calif. Non-Hispanic sponsors from the Religious Right included televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; pastor Rick Scarborough, national co-chairman of Vision America; and pastor Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church.

Perfect storm on election day
Among GOP strategists, the cultivation of the Hispanic evangelical community was viewed as essential to Bush's re-election and to their party's long-range prospects. As far back as Frank Fahrenkopf in the 1980s, Republican National Committee chairmen have stressed the need to win more black and Hispanic votes. Karl Rove, Matthew Dowd, Ken Mehlman, and most other top Republican operatives are now convinced that the parties are at a tipping point and that the GOP can no longer rely on its overwhelmingly white base to win national elections. In 2001, Dowd argued that boosting the GOP's percentages among minorities would be crucial to winning in 2004: "As a realistic goal, we have to get somewhere between 13 and 15 percent of the black vote and 38 to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote."

On Election Day 2004, the Republicans' Hispanic strategy paid off. "It was a perfect storm for us," a Bush strategist recalls. In less than a decade, the percentage of Hispanic-Americans voting for the Republican presidential nominee had doubled. According to national exit-poll data, Latino support rose from 21 percent in 1996, to 31 percent in 2000, to 44 percent in 2004. More-detailed analyses suggest the actual 2004 figure was probably closer to 40 percent.

Virtually all of the growth in the GOP's Hispanic support came from Protestant evangelicals, the Pew Hispanic Center found. Among Catholic Hispanics, support for Bush remained unchanged -- 33 percent in both 2000 and 2004. Among Protestant Hispanics, however, support for Bush surged from 44 percent in 2000 to a solid 56 percent majority in 2004.

Meanwhile, the number of Protestant Hispanic voters was growing much faster, by nearly 900,000 from 2000 to 2004, than the number of Catholic Latino voters, roughly 460,000, based on extrapolation from Pew figures. And while Bush increased his Hispanic support by 1.1 million votes, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry received just 280,000 more votes than Al Gore had four years earlier.

The immigration schism
Almost immediately after the 2004 election, immigration superseded the culture-war issues that attracted evangelical Hispanics to the Republican Party. This was especially so because of the fierce national debate over how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country.

House Republicans' demands for a crackdown on illegal immigrants and Bush's seeming inability to get Congress to approve a new path to legalization have fractured the GOP's promising alliance with evangelical Hispanics. And the break is significant enough to threaten the party's future competitiveness.

This certainly isn't where Republicans appeared to be headed on December 20, 2004, when Bush promised at a press conference to use his political capital to win approval of landmark legislation that would allow illegal immigrants already here to become legal temporary workers and that might open the door to citizenship for some. "We ought to have a system that recognizes people are coming here to do jobs that Americans will not do," Bush declared. "And there ought to be a legal way for them to do so.... And I'm passionate on it because the nature of this country is one that is good-hearted and compassionate. Our people are compassionate. The system we have today is not a compassionate system."

Bush's remarks raised the expectations of not only millions of undocumented workers but also their children (some 3.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens by birth), relatives, friends, co-workers, employers, fellow church members, and pastors. Bush's announcement appeared likely to solidify Latino evangelical support for Republicans.

Instead, the president's commitment to a more "compassionate" immigration policy provoked a backlash among House Republicans that threatens to wipe out all of the gains that he and his strategists have achieved among Latino voters. The administration's foundering proposal to provide a path to legal status has become Exhibit A in the collapse of Bush's authority within his own party. In the House, Bush lost control of the debate to the hard-line Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, chaired by one of Bush's harshest critics, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

The tone and substance of the immigration bill that the House passed on December 16, 2005, demonstrated that Tancredo's 104-member caucus had more muscle than the president on this particular issue. The bill, approved 239-182, provides for border fencing and state-of-the-art technology to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, requires employers to verify the legal status of employees, and calls for hiring and training 1,000 port-of-entry inspectors and 1,500 K-9 border-control teams. Instead of providing a mechanism for illegal immigrants to achieve legal status, the measure would elevate illegal entry to a felony -- a provision that heightened the anxiety of undocumented residents and their allies. Republicans voted 203-17 for the measure, while Democrats and the House's lone independent opposed it, 36-165.

In denouncing the House measure, liberal Hispanic organizations, which tend to align themselves with the Democratic Party, were united with the very same Hispanic evangelicals that the Bush administration had long courted. "The issue of immigration is the most important issue in the Hispanic community," trumping abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer, Cortes said. "If the House Republicans get their way and pass their 'border-protection-only/kick-out-the-undocumented' policy, it only serves to better organize us."

In the Senate, most Republicans (32 of 55) voted in May against legislation that would provide an avenue to legal status, but it passed anyway, thanks to overwhelming Democratic support. Republican lawmakers' intense antagonism toward any proposal that could be construed as "amnesty" kept them in sync with conservative white voters outspokenly hostile to the Bush plan. Over the past two generations, these voters -- many of them former Democrats drawn to the GOP by its stands on race, crime, welfare, affirmative action, and gay rights -- have been crucial to Republican success.

Advantages in some states
Faced with the possibility of losing control of one or both chambers in November, House and Senate Republicans now consider it far more important to get their white voters to the polls than to try to bolster the party's support among Hispanics. Bush's immigration proposal has increased the chances that large numbers of white conservatives will opt to sit out the election. "You don't know what it's like to go on talk radio around the country and try to defend the president's plan," said a top administration ally who has tried to build support for the proposal. "I can't tell you how many people told me, 'If the Bush plan gets passed, the Republican Party can kiss my white ass goodbye.'"

Taking a strong stand against legalization is clearly politically advantageous in some states, at least one poll indicates. In Colorado, Tancredo's home state, immigration has been a heated topic in the Legislature and in the gubernatorial race. A Mason-Dixon survey of 625 Colorado voters conducted July 12-13 for The Denver Post showed a decisive 39 percent plurality identifying immigration as "the single most important issue facing the state." When asked whether barring illegal immigrants from receiving state services and from obtaining employment was "good" or "bad," 44 percent said good and 35 percent said bad. While pluralities of Democrats and Hispanics opposed such bans (by 49 percent to 31 percent and 46 percent to 31 percent, respectively), Republicans supported them 2-to-1 (52 percent to 26 percent). Independents supported the bans by 49 percent to 28 percent. (Two of Colorado's three House Democrats, John Salazar and Mark Udall, were among the small number of Democrats voting in favor of the tough House immigration bill.)

The Republican backlash against Bush's immigration proposal continues to roil the Hispanic community. The debate gets much stronger and more detailed play by Spanish-language networks and newspapers than by English-language media. Tancredo and members of his caucus are closely tracked by the Latino media. And their crackdown legislation is so well known within the Hispanic community that many Latino leaders routinely refer to it by the bill number, 4437.

Outrage over caucus web site
The caucus Web site has outraged many Hispanics by spotlighting dangers supposedly posed by illegal immigration: "Sister Helen Chaska was murdered in late summer 2002 by being strangled with her rosary beads -- the beads were found imbedded in her neck. She was also raped.... Her accused murderer is Maximiliano Esparza, who is in the United States illegally"; "2 in 3 U.S. Teens Snubbed for Summer Jobs in Favor of Cheap Immigrant Labor"; "The Kissing Bug (Vinchuca) attacks a person in the face while he or she is asleep by 'kissing' them in the fold of the cheek. Within time, the parasite races into the bloodstream to destroy the heart and other organs.... It kills 50,000 people per year south of the border"; "Experts Fear Open Immigration Could Result in Tuberculosis Plague in the United States."

Hispanics have responded to the caucus's success in the House by taking to the streets to protest -- 500,000 strong in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Denver, 20,000 in Phoenix.

Liberal, pro-Democratic groups moved quickly to capitalize on the outpouring of opposition to the GOP bill. We Are America, an alliance of immigrant-advocacy groups and such unions as UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union, was organized to register naturalized citizens. The alliance's efforts are based, in part, on the assumption that increased mobilization of Hispanics will help Democrats. A 2006 report [PDF] by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights contends that the "current Republican-led legislative attacks on immigrants and red-hot anti-immigrant demagoguery sparked the spring 2006 immigrant-rights marches.... They are also likely to drive increases in the registration and voting rates of U.S.-born children of immigrants. This could dramatically -- and negatively -- affect the outcome of the 2008 presidential election for the Republican Party, as well as Republican prospects in numerous state elections."

In a development equally foreboding for the GOP, at least in the near term, many Hispanic evangelical ministers are bitter about the direction of the House immigration debate. "The Republicans have dropped the ball.... If they lose this one [the Bush immigration plan], they might as well kiss the Hispanic vote goodbye for a long time," said Daniel de Leon, pastor of the 6,000-member Templo Calvario. De Leon has hosted a Spanish-language version of Pat Robertson's The 700 Club and is an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage. During the Reagan administration, de Leon changed his registration from Democrat to Republican. In 2004, he appeared with Bush at events advocating amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Now de Leon says he intends to change his registration to "independent."

Latino religious leaders say they are particularly disturbed by the anti-Hispanic undertone of much of the Republican opposition to opening a path to legalization -- an undertone, they say, that has served to legitimize more explicitly derogatory comments. Manuel Rivera of the National Coalition, who says his organization represents 1,500 small Pentecostal churches, many of them storefront operations, attended hearings on proposed anti-immigrant ordinances in Riverside, N.J., and Hazelton, Pa. He's appalled by what he heard there: "Let's get rid of these people." "These people have destroyed our town; it's like a stain." He blames House Republicans for the proliferation of such rhetoric. "Due to their lack of responsibility, we are going through one of the worst scenarios in many cities of the United States," Rivera said. "It is a shame to see the animosity that members of Congress have created."

Animosity toward illegal immigrants strikes very close to home for Rivera. More than one-third of the members of his coalition's church are undocumented, he says, as are 17 percent of its pastors.

Party of Tancredo or Bush?
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said that as the immigration debate progresses, "we need to be clear: We don't know if the Republican Party is the party of Tancredo or the party of Bush.... Is the Republican Party anti-immigrant, is the Republican Party anti-Hispanic?"

At least three surveys of Hispanics -- by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, the partisan New Democrat Network, and the Republican-leaning Latino Coalition -- show significant Hispanic defections from the Republican Party. A Pew poll of 2,000 Hispanic adults conducted July 3-5 found that the percentage saying that discrimination is now a "major" problem has grown to 58 percent, up from 44 percent in 2002. Fifty-four percent say the immigration debate has worsened the problem of discrimination. From 2004 to 2005, the percentage favoring the Republicans on immigration fell from 25 percent to 16 percent, while those preferring the Democrats on immigration policy slipped from 39 percent to 35 percent. Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, and Gabriel Escobar, associate director for publications, concluded that the Pew study "shows that Latinos to some extent are holding the Republican Party responsible for what they perceive to be the negative consequences of the immigration debate, but the political impact of that perception is uncertain."

In July, the New Democrat Network polled 600 Hispanics whose preference was to be interviewed in Spanish, not English. The survey found that both Bush and his party were viewed negatively: Bush's favorable/unfavorable ratings were 38 percent/58 percent, while the GOP's were 41 percent/51 percent. The Democratic Party was viewed in a much better light: 65 percent favorable to 25 percent unfavorable. On the issue of immigration, these Hispanics preferred the Democratic Party over the GOP by 55 percent to 22 percent. Asked whether they would rather vote for a Republican or a Democrat, 59 percent said a Democrat and only 23 percent said a Republican. That contrasts with a 2004 poll indicating that Hispanics most comfortable answering in Spanish were almost evenly divided, 52 percent to 48 percent, between Kerry and Bush.

For Republicans, the most disturbing results were from the Latino Coalition survey conducted last December just as the House took up H.R. 4437. The survey looked at 2004 findings showing Bush ahead of Kerry among all Hispanic voters on who would do a better job "keeping America safe and fighting terrorism," even with Kerry on "being in touch with the Hispanic community," and trailing Kerry on jobs, health care, and education. The coalition then asked similar questions in 2005, giving respondents a choice between "Democrats in Congress" and "Republicans in Congress." In every case, congressional Republicans fell far short of Bush's numbers while Democrats matched or improved on Kerry's numbers.

"If the Republican leadership in Congress allows an extremist group to control the debate over immigration reform and put partisan rhetoric over real, commonsense legislation, the GOP will eliminate all the progress achieved by President Bush in attracting Hispanics into the GOP," said Latino Coalition President Robert Deposada.

Erosion for GOP among swing voters?
Matt Dowd, the architect of much of the Bush 2004 campaign strategy, warns that the House Republicans' aggressive approach to immigration endangers GOP control of the national policy agenda not only by alienating Hispanics who are conservative on most social issues but also by eroding the party's gains among white swing voters. "From my perspective, looking at all voters, the thing I am most concerned about is that the debate has to be two-handed. House Republican members are all talking about security without any compassion element. That is going to have a negative effect not only with Latino voters but with moderate suburban voters."

But evangelical Hispanic leaders like Cortes are focused not on how the House GOP's immigration legislation could affect the party's future but on how many Latino lives it could turn upside down. "The Republican Far Right," Cortes warns, "will... have to answer for their choice of framing the discussion and using the word 'amnesty' in a deceiving and untrue manner. People of faith understand the true meaning of 'amnesty': It is what Christ provides us. It is free and unconditional."

Cortes added, "A prominent lifelong Hispanic Republican, a clergyman from Orange County, California, who has a congregation of 6,000, said to me after a meeting with the RNC on immigration attended by over 50 of our most prominent Latino clergy, that for the first time in his life he is ashamed of being Republican."

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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