As far as recent forums featuring Republican White House hopefuls go, Wednesday’s meeting of Hispanic evangelicals here was a bit unusual. Its host is an ardent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, a dirty phrase to many GOP primary voters. And the two potential candidates who spoke did little to back away from views on immigration that have gotten them in trouble with that conservative wing of their party.
The gathering of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference put on vivid display the disparate audiences some Republicans are speaking to on immigration as they try to pave a path to the White House. In one corner are the conservative activists in places like Iowa and South Carolina who lustily applaud as GOP speakers denounce “amnesty” on the stump. In the other corner are those who filled the ballroom here, conservative-leaning voters for whom the immigration issue strikes closer to home than it does for the average Hawkeye State powerbroker.
Samuel Rodriguez, the fiery reverend who heads the NCHLC, vowed not to let any presidential candidate off the hook. “We will press them on immigration. I will press them on immigration — I can guarantee you that,” Rodriguez told reporters. “I want a presidential hopeful on the GOP side who’ll say, ‘Listen, if I’m elected president, I guarantee you I will sit down with Congress, and we will pass comprehensive immigration reform that will secure the border. It will not be amnesty, but it will provide a pathway for integration to the millions that are currently here undocumented because we are pro-faith, we are pro-family and we do not believe in separating families.’ Period.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose immigration position is considered one of his biggest liabilities among Republican primary voters, addressed the issue head-on Wednesday — to the point of overshadowing the education-reform message on which his speech was centered. He unapologetically affirmed his support for a pathway to legal status for the millions of people in the country of illegally, stressing they have to earn it.
“This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows,” Bush said. “This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities.”
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