Latino Republicans soul-search their role with controversial Trump as nominee

They stand upon the divide between the political party they have seen as the one where they truly belong, and their ethnic community.

Over the years, they have played mediator, trying to bring Republicans and Latinos closer together, trying to dispel the perception that each group has of the other.

But in the Donald Trump election year, they see their mission as Sisyphean, one that calls for them to support the party whose standard-bearer is perceived by a majority of Latinos as being against them.

Many have opted to draw a distinction between Trump and the Republican Party when speaking to Latinos and getting involved in the election, focusing Latinos on GOP candidates who are running for congressional seats.

“He would have to go back on everything he has said,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a conservative who served in the George W. Bush administration and who, like many Latino Republicans – who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, among other things – supports policies that allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.

Aguilar, who is executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which works to build support among Latinos for conservative candidates and issues, helped organize a group of Latino Republicans last year who demanded that Trump and other GOP candidates tone down their hardline rhetoric.

“We were the first group to denounce him,” said Aguilar of Trump. “Republicans thought he’d wither away. People who are now attacking him publicly back then said ‘Don’t say anything bad about him.’ They did not want him to get mad and run as an Independent. It was arrogance, them thinking they knew everything.”

Aguilar says he plans to encourage Latinos to participate in the election "in record numbers," but leave the presidential part of the ballot empty.

"On one side, we have a candidate who insults Latinos, on the other we have one who lies to Latinos," he said about Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin has attended the last five presidential national conventions and stumped for the last five GOP nominees, but will do neither this year.

Marin said it was a painstaking decision not to support a presumptive Republican nominee, but that she had no choice. Marin, who was born in Mexico City and came to California with her family when she was 14, views Trump as being antithetical to everything she stands for, and an enemy of Latinos.

“He’s insulted me,” she said, speaking figuratively, “the people I love, the community I represent. He’s for everything I’ve fought against. There is no way I could ask anybody to vote for him. I’m certainly not going to.”

Donald Trump dedicated a good deal of his campaign announcement speech last year to railing against Mexico, saying it was sending criminals to the U.S. and claiming that he would build a wall on the U.S.'s border and make Mexico pay for it. Trump lashed out at Mexico for the thousands who have fled illegally to the United States.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," Trump said. “They're not sending you…They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

It is a message he has stuck with and made a cornerstone of his campaign, adding more ways that he would crack down on undocumented immigrants, such has having a deportation army that would round up and deport all estimated 12 million.

He says, however, that he has nothing against Hispanics, whom he says he has employed by the thousands.

Latino Republican politicians in general have expressed opposition to Trump, while some say they always felt committed to supporting whomever the nominee turned out to be.

Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had backed Bush at first, then threw their support to Sen. Marco Rubio after the former governor withdrew.

Now, Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen have indicated they will not support Trump, while Diaz-Balart appears to be leaving open the possibility that he will back him.

“My position has not changed,” Curbelo was quoted by the Miami Herald as saying about Trump. “I have no plans of supporting either of the presumptive nominees.”

Ros-Lehtinen was quoted as saying she, too, cannot bring herself to stand with Trump.

“I don’t plan to vote for Donald Trump,” she said. “I don’t feel in my heart that I could support him. But I can’t support Hillary Clinton.”

Diaz-Balart indicated he likely would end up backing Trump.

“My intention is to vote for the Republican nominee,” he said, according to The Herald.

For their part, Democrats are holding Trump up to Latinos voters as a symbol of the GOP, and trying to drive a large wedge between the voting bloc and Republicans.

Groups that are liberal-leaning praise their conservative counterparts for drawing the line at supporting Trump.

“They’re to be commended,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, which supports Latino candidates and non-Latinos who support the group’s causes, “they’re standing up against hate.”

The Latino Victory Project has endorsed Hillary Clinton.

One of the most influential conservative Latino organizations sees the soul-searching among Latino Republicans as a healthy thing for the community.

“It’s up to Donald Trump to make the case to our community,” said Daniel Garza, executive director of the right-leaning Libre Initiative, “to uphold the concept of limited government, free market ideas.”

Garza and his organization, which partly financed by the Koch brothers, say they don’t back particular candidates, but they take positions on policies and proposals, and they generally are in line with that of the Republican Party.

Libre supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria. They opposed President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Garza’s group has become increasingly visible and influential in elections. He does not think that Trump has hurt the group’s efforts.

“His positions allow us an opportunity to educated Latinos with more credibility, especially when he’s wrong,” Garza said. “Folks realize then that we really are, above all else, about the policies that lift people, not the candidate.”

He said Libre is moving forward with its initiatives.

“We will be connecting with 5 million Latinos across the country, whether by phone calls or in their communities,” Garza said. “Those interested in running for office will hear our concerns. Our mission is to inform and educate Latinos on issues."

"Where we feel a candidate is wrong on a position, we will call them out and encourage them when they’re right," Garza said. "It's important for Latinos to hold both parties accountable."