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Republican Latinos Fight Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric in Texas

Image: Hector De Leon, a Latino Republican in Texas

Hector De Leon, who is the co-chair of the Associated Republicans of Texas, at his office in Austin, Texas on Feb. 13. Erin Trieb / for NBC News

Hector De Leon grew up in humble circumstances on the east side of Austin, Texas. For most of his life he was surrounded by the Democratic Party, but switched allegiances after Republicans endorsed him in a local election. He hasn't regretted his decision.

“I was welcomed with open arms by the GOP,” he said.

Today, the 67 year-old is co-chair of the board of directors of the Associated Republicans of Texas (ART), whose mission is to strengthen the state’s Republican party in part by building a long-term commitment to Hispanics.

But De Leon said the national immigration debate is complicating ART’s mission and threatening to chip at the advances the party has made courting the Hispanic vote.

"We want to welcome Hispanics," De Leon said. "Let's talk about why Hispanics should want to be part of our party."

The GOP already has a stronger hold on Hispanics in Texas than in other parts of the country. This month, Gallup reported that 27 percent of Texas Hispanics align with the GOP, six percentage points higher than Latinos nationally.

But De Leon said that national Republican leaders, too, must be more careful and responsible with their words.

"Where is our party going to be, in 15, 20 years, if we keep talking about immigration in exclusionary terms? If our policy focus is on sending back immigrants, it makes us sound like we are anti-Latino," he said.

George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush and son of former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, echoed that view last month. He criticized Denton County Republican Party chairwoman Dianne Edmundson who in a recent online newsletter referred to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis as “Abortion Barbie with Hispanic Senator Leticia Van de Putte as her running mate.” Van de Putte is running for lieutenant governor.

Bush, who is running for Texas Land Commissioner, said he hoped Texas Republicans would not tolerate such “ignorant statements” about Hispanics. “I just think that it’s disappointing that people resort to those types of tactics,” he told The Texas Tribune.

In a January televised debate in Dallas, all four GOP lieutenant governor candidates stressed that illegal immigration could best be addressed by focusing on border security and one went further. “The first question is to stop the invasion,” said state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston. Patrick’s use of the word “invasion” irked his fellow Republicans, including DeLeon, and Democrats pounced. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a Democrat, called Patrick “the most anti-immigrant Republican running for office.”

"If our policy focus is on sending back immigrants, it makes us sound like we are anti-Latino."

The Lone Star State has the second-largest Hispanic population in the nation, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. About 9.5 million Hispanics live in Texas, 38 percent of its population. Although Texas is a reliably Republican state in national elections, in the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama captured 70 percent of the Texas Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney received 29 percent of the state’s Latino vote.

However, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that only 55 percent of eligible Latinos are registered to vote in Texas. Nearly 3 million Texas Latinos who could have voted in 2012 (some registered to vote, some not) did not show up at the polls. This untapped trove of potential Latino voters is enticing to both parties.

Texas Republicans have done well with Hispanics in the past. George W. Bush enjoyed warm relations with Texas Hispanics as governor and in his presidential runs. NBC News reported that he received 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote in 2004.

Although it was politically risky, in 2001, Gov. Rick Perry signed the Texas Dream Act, which provided for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants at Texas public colleges. His support for the act hurt him with conservatives as a candidate in the 2012 GOP presidential primary. But exit polls showed Perry got an estimated 36 percent to 38 percent of the Latino vote in his 2010 gubernatorial race.

Hoping to tap into the Latino electorate, current Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has a Spanish-language campaign website, featuring a family photo including his wife, who is Mexican American. (His presumed opponent Wendy Davis does not have an ad in Spanish, although a spokesman told The Texas Tribune that one is planned).

However, Abbott touched off a firestorm this month when he said corruption among state and local officials in the overwhelmingly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley of south Texas “resembled third-world country practices.”

The comment drew the ire of the region’s voters and Democrats. State Rep. Poncho Nevarez, a Democrat from the border town of Eagle Pass, said Abbott’s remarks were “demeaning” and voters in border regions “will not forget his words come November.”

The comment did not rankle George P. Bush, whose mother is originally from Mexico. He told the McAllen Monitor newspaper that Abbott’s comments were taken out of context.

Looking ahead, the question is whether Republicans can count on Latino support to continue their dominance in Texas politics.

According to Emmanuel Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, the answer is no. “Once the Tea Party became prominent, compassionate conservatism died,” he said.

“Texas Latinos have been somewhat insulated from the wider immigration debate because the party has not been so anti-immigrant here.”

Political scientist Sylvia Manzano, of the Latino Decisions polling firm, said that Republicans have a strong grass-roots organizing network among Latinos throughout the state, while the Democratic Party was, until recently, in a “state of atrophy.” In addition, Texas Republicans have benefitted from the absence of homegrown immigration hardliners, like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, or Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Manzano said. “Texas Latinos have been somewhat insulated from the wider immigration debate because the party has not been so anti-immigrant here.”

But that insulation appears to be thinning. All four candidates for lieutenant governor have pledged to repeal the Texas Dream Act, including incumbent David Dewhurst.

“It is like they are playing, 'Quien es mas macho?' (Who is more macho?) on immigration,” Manzano said. “They’re also talking about border security, and one candidate says he wants an Arizona-style immigration law in Texas.”

The long-term danger is that anti-immigrant policies could take hold in Texas under a new crop of leaders, which could prove problematic for Republican efforts at wooing Latinos.

“If anti-immigrant policies do come to pass here in Texas, we will likely see a backlash among Latinos, just as we saw in California, Arizona, and Colorado,” Manzano said. “Maybe Steve King can get away with it in his state, but this isn’t Iowa.”