March 21, 2010


Latino religious leader Rodriguez courts the left, right for immigration reform (Krissah Thompson, 3/21/10, Washington Post)

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez wants immigration reform, and believes building bridges across political divides is how to win it.

As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he has made himself at home with secular progressives and right-wing evangelicals, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. [...]

About 10 million Latinos voted in the 2008 presidential election, and evangelicals are considered to make up about one-third of the Hispanic vote. But their political impact is larger than their numbers, said Gaston Espinosa, a professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College and author of "Religion, Race, and the American Presidency" and several books about Latino Protestants.

His research also found that as many as 600,000 Latinos convert to evangelicalism every year, and Hispanic evangelicals tend to vote at higher rates than Hispanic Catholics. They are also heavily concentrated in swing states, such as Colorado, Florida and New Mexico.

Rodriguez will now find out whether the community's clout and his hold-hands-with-everyone-approach help advance the contentious issue of overhauling immigration law. He is not naive about all those friendships he has made.

"I've been with people that I pray with, who are some of my greatest friends on the right, who'll say they want to deport 12 million people," Rodriguez said. "Or they'll say -- and this is how they'll say it -- 'Why doesn't your people learn English? If they can't, they need to go.' "

He shook his head.

He has no illusions on the other side either, and some on that side, in turn, view him with suspicion. Bruce Wilson, a founder of an online publication opposed to the religious right, calls Rodriguez proof that the "new face of the politicized Christian conservative movement is not exclusively associated with the Republican Party." [...]

Last month, Rodriguez was speaking to the Oak Initiative, led by pastor and televangelist Rick Joyner, who has built a large ministry in Fort Mill, S.C. Rodriguez, who is on Oak's board, describes it as "the Christian tea party without all the anger." For the most part, the conference attendees, who came from around the country, are fans of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck and fear that big government is bankrupting the nation.

Rodriguez worried that they might be vulnerable to what he has called the "xenophobia and anti-Latino rhetoric" of some on the right.

"It's 2010. The old modus operandi will not succeed. It's going to take white, black, brown to win elections," he told them.

As evidence, he talked about the support evangelicals across racial lines were able to build for Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. After the speech, the 150 activists in South Carolina took a straw poll; each one supported making it possible for illegal immigrants to become citizens.

Rodriguez counted it a small victory.

There have been larger ones. After what he described as a few years of lobbying, the National Evangelical Association's board voted in October to support an immigration overhaul.

"Immigrants are a part of who we are, and we see the question through the lens of people we know and care about," said Galen Carey, the group's D.C.-based government affairs director. "It's not just an abstraction."

Rodriguez knows the chances for change this year are slim amid the debate over health-care and economic recovery efforts. For now, he continues to push right-wing evangelicals to support the policy. If the makeup of Congress changes after November's midterm elections, he thinks Latino evangelicals could persuade Republicans to get behind the issue.

To skeptics, Rodriguez points to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the last major overhaul of immigration law to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.

"Ronald Reagan supported it," Rodriguez said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2010 6:50 AM
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