POLITICS

Texas Latino Republicans Seek Middle Ground on Immigration and Birthright Citizenship

They are Republicans.

They like to tout the conservative and family values of their Hispanic constituents. But when it comes to immigration --and on things such as English-only measures and bills that deny U.S.-born babies of unauthorized immigrants automatic citizenship-- they gravitate towards more soft-spoken and nuanced positions than many of their GOP colleagues.

They are Hispanic Republican legislators, trying to reconcile the popular positions of their political party and those of their Hispanic constituents.

Take, for example, Texas Republican Rep. Aaron Peña. He is expected to take a hard line on immigration. But as a Latino who represents a district with a large Hispanic population along the U.S.-Mexico border, the South Texas lawyer finds some of the anti-immigrant proposals in the Legislature to be unfair and unnecessarily harsh.

Peña, who switched from the Democratic party in December, is among a handful of new Latino Republicans in the Texas Legislature, and they are taking a careful walk through the minefield of hot-button immigration and cultural wedge issues that are sure to spark debate, and possibly legal reforms, in the Texas Legislature this year.

Several of them planned to meet as a group Wednesday with Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is helping lead a Latino outreach effort, aides said. Abbott's eventual advice on the legality of some of the immigration bills could be a key factor in what happens to them in the Legislature.

Peña and other Latino lawmakers are challenging the GOP to think in new ways about issues that stir Hispanic passions.

Similar debates about the GOP’s handling of issues such as immigration are occurring elsewhere in the nation as well.

Earlier this month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, launched a campaign to bring his party and Latinos closer. Many who support the effort are concerned that some of the pointed rhetoric by immigration hardliners during the midterm election campaign – as well as since then – is alienating Hispanics who otherwise hold many conservative values.

“There are many Latino Republicans who have been committed to this party that have stopped voting,” said Leslie Sánchez, a former Bush aide involved with the outreach effort, told reporters. “This shifts the conversation.”

Bush said to those at a Florida gathering on the outreach effort: “Without an active participation of the most dynamic, growing part of what will be the governing coalition in our country, without the active involvement of Hispanics, we will not be the governing philosophy of our country.”

Some Republican Latino voters have expressed frustration over some GOP positions they feel is unnecessarily harsh toward immigrants.

“The truth is I think legislators are well-intentioned, but they misunderstand the values and aspirations of the immigrants who arrive here,” said Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that promotes conservative values and ideals within the Latino community.

“Legislators are concerned because of the crime along the border, and there’s a great wave of immigration that is changing the face of the country,” Aguilar said. “It’s led some to propose legislation that they think will somehow protect the American identity, that is why they’re pushing things like English-only laws.”

Aguilar said harsh laws targeting immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, go against some core GOP principles.

“They come here to work hard, they want to assimilate, they want to learn English, and they are not putting at risk our American identity,” Aguilar said. “Many immigrants arriving here from Latin America are very conservative and entrepreneurial, there’s nothing to fear.”

Peña, for example, thinks it's an awful idea to deny illegal immigrants the right to sue in state court. He said the measure, sponsored by GOP Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler, would invite unwarranted abuse against people, even if they are here illegally.

"It allows people to treat other people like animals, and it invites chaos," Peña said.

He opposes legislation that seeks to deny the rights of citizenship to people born in the U.S., and takes a dim view of "English only" bills, depending on how they're written.

"I wouldn't see the need for that in El Paso," Republican GOP Rep. Dee Margo said, referring to bills that might restrict the use of Spanish. 

Margo, whose grandfather was Hispanic, represents an El Paso County border district that is almost 60 percent Latino.

Some Latino Republicans favor the GOP's hard line on immigration and other related issues. This week, for instance, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who made headlines in the fall when she was elected the nation's first Latina governor, signed an executive order requiring police to check the immigration status of people they arrest for crimes. Martinez also wants her state repeal a law that that allows people who are in the United States unlawfully to obtain a driver's license.

An immigrants rights group called Somos Un Pueblo Unido, based in Sante Fe, New Mexico, is planning a rally next week at the state capitol to protest Martinez's efforts to crack down on unauthorized immigrants.

In Texas, Berman, the Tyler Republican who has filed several bills aimed at illegal immigrants, said his ideas are popular among most of his fellow Republican legislators. 

He said the U.S. Constitution never should have been interpreted to allow the children of foreigners to be granted automatic citizenship and that states should be able to protect citizens from lawsuits filed by people here illegally.

But Rep. John Garza of San Antonio worries that the heated rhetoric surrounding the immigration issue could hurt Republicans like him in 2012. Garza squeaked out a narrow, upset victory in November against a Democrat in a district that is 64 percent Hispanic.

"I have to be careful. My constituency is not all Republican," Garza said, adding that he wants the federal government, not the Texas Legislature, to enact immigration reforms.

"In my district, immigration was down on the bottom of the totem pole in terms of issues," he said. "We need to be inclusive if we want to gain the Hispanic vote."

Garza is among the lawmakers joining the Hispanic Republican Conference, which Peña chairs. The group, formed last week, plans to take positions on specific immigration bills and other issues if two-thirds of its members agree, Peña said. The group includes six members who identify themselves as Hispanic and three non Hispanics in districts that are at least 40 percent Hispanic.

Abbott, whose wife is Hispanic, will meet with the conference and swear them in as new members, Peña said. In past legislative sessions, Abbott informed legislators that some of the initiatives aimed at illegal immigrants represented unlawful interference with federal authority.

Abbott told The Associated Press that he hasn't been asked about the legality of the immigration bills this year but that he would give his opinion if asked.

"I haven't gotten any inquiries at this time," he said.

While Hispanics have traditionally voted Democratic, Abbott and other Republicans said the election of several new Republican Hispanics – there were none two years ago – shows that the GOP and the growing Hispanic population share conservative values.

"As long as we stand for the values that will provide hope and opportunity, we'll be connecting both with core Republican constituents as well as attract many from the Hispanic community to the Republican Party," Abbott said.

Democrats aren't buying that argument.

"Peña and his friends are not only politically opportunistic, they're outright hostile to the Hispanic Texans they purport to represent," said Anthony Gutiérrez, the state party's deputy executive director. "We need leaders with the courage to fight for us, not a Republican club pandering to us while its members stand right alongside the very people attacking our community."

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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