When the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) gathers in Houston this week, we are united by a simple symbol: a cross. And like that cross, our shared mission is both vertical and horizontal. Vertically, we stand connected to God and His kingdom. Horizontally, to our left and to our right, we stand connected to family, culture, society and community. The members of our 40,000 Hispanic Evangelical churches in the U.S. care deeply about issues that lie along both these planes, issues such as faith, life, family, religious liberty, education and immigration.
I would like to propose something different for prospective candidates vying for a presidential nomination and courting the Hispanic vote or the Evangelical vote: don’t talk about diversity, talk about inclusion. Don’t talk about opting out, talk about opting in. It’s time to remind Americans that we are not only one nation under God, but we are also a nation of liberty and justice for all.
This Wednesday, over 1,000 Hispanic Evangelical pastors at our national convention will have the opportunity to hear from two Republicans who embrace the Christian conservative ethos of the NHCLC — Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee. While there are any number of “wedge” issues that candidates and their campaign supporters use to distinguish themselves from others, where the candidates stand on immigration and education reform will be critical not just to secure the support of the NHCLC but to reach the constituents of the more than 40,000 Evangelical Hispanic churches we represent. What I would like to hear is how candidates plan to reclaim the mantle of compassionate conservatism in which families and faith come first, and political orthodoxy provides a path to success rather than circles of division.
Our faith requires us to honor the imago dei in every person, enabling each to fulfill the potential God has given them. This holds true for students as much as adults, which is why I support non-federal high education standards which can be compared across states. Hispanic students graduate high school at a rate 10% lower than their white classmates. So many Hispanics fight to make it to the United States, and to see the education system failing our children is unacceptable.
While everyone seems engulfed in a debate over the semantics of the term Common Core, we need a common sense solution to address the educational disparity in America. The patchwork of academic standards across states has not been adequately preparing high school graduates for career or college. Research shows that 28 to 40% of enrolled college students need at least one remedial course; for a working student struggling to afford tuition, having to pay to learn material he or she should have learned in high school is just wrong. With nearly 40% of U.S. employers saying they have trouble finding workers with the job skills they need, the labor situation is dire.
Schools must be held accountable for the quality of education they provide, and high academic standards which can be compared across states are a key step toward educational equity. High academic benchmarks are the path to a high-quality education; individual district and school curricula are the steps on that path. And the end of the journey is a bright future for all students, where a high school diploma means as much in Ohio as it does in Iowa, Alabama or New Hampshire.
What I find most disappointing is hearing respected leaders reverse themselves because a political poll tells them to do so. We cannot expect to remain the world’s only superpower leading from behind polls. Strong, compassionate leaders understand that it is the right decisions, not the ones made on the altar of political expediency that will benefit our country for the future.
Just as our faith demands that we do better for Hispanic students, justice demands that we reconcile the rule of law with a process that does not tear families apart. Current immigration laws promote unjust working conditions and even human trafficking by making it near-impossible coupled with exorbitant costs to wait for legal means to enter this country.
Immigration reform is quickly becoming one of the most divisive issues our country has seen in generations, and it threatens to tear us apart. Inflammatory rhetoric leading to an “us vs. them” environment gets us nowhere, and does nothing to help the millions of Hispanics who live in fear of selective enforcement that makes a mockery of the law. This is dehumanizing, and denies people the ability to thrive as God wishes us to do.
I pray that the candidates who emerge from the 2016 presidential primaries will model themselves as compassionate leaders who put human beings first and politics a distant runner-up to last place. Common-sense immigration reform that prioritizes families, and education reform that starts with common goals of preparing all students to succeed in college and in the workplace, should be among the first steps taken. As the president of the NHCLC, I look forward to walking alongside a candidate who has the strength to take this path.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC/CONEL) and the Hispanic Evangelical Association.
This story has been updated.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will both be making overtures to Hispanic voters Wednesday, speaking to national groups on issues that could increase their appeal within the rapidly growing voting bloc in the 2016 election.
What they will discuss — and how they will discuss it — could provide a preview for the different way in which the two candidates will reach out to Hispanics once the primary season is properly underway.
Fresh off a trip from Puerto Rico, Bush on Wednesday will speak the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Houston, a gathering of Hispanic evangelicals where “faith, education, immigration, [and] racial reconciliation” will likely feature prominently, according to an event description.
“He’s faith-literate, he knows how to approach faith groups and have a conversation. And he understands how to have a good dialogue,” said Rev. Luis Cortes, the president and CEO of Esperanza, a national network of Hispanic evangelicals.
On the other side of the country, in Washington, Cruz will sit down with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for a question-and-answer-sessions to talk about economic growth and small businesses.
That event comes after USHCC president Javier Palomarez last month expressed dissatisfaction with Cruz for skipping the group’s annual summit, which came on the heels of Cruz’s presidential announcement. The Q&A seems to be (at least in part) an attempt to soothe tensions between the two teams – while giving Cruz chance to make his business-heavy pitch to Latino voters.
“For the senator’s part, his messaging to the Hispanic community will be one of economic growth, prosperity, opportunities for your kids,” said Cruz spokesperson Rick Tyler.
On the stump, Cruz frequently discusses his father’s immigration from Cuba decades ago. But, notably, his event with the chamber will likely not emphasize immigration reform, which Cruz opposes so long as any such legislation gives undocumented immigrants legal status.
“[M]y understanding is that while immigration is an important issue, it’s not polling among the top issues they’re talking about. They really want to talk about economic growth and small business opportunity,” Tyler said.
Despite heavy criticism from conservatives opposed to “amnesty,” Bush has remained committed to supporting an immigration reform plan that would provide legal status to undocumented immigrants, subtly calling attention to it time and again. In Puerto Rico Tuesday, the former Florida governor showed off his Spanish-language skills and spoke sympathetically about his bi-cultural family and the “immigrant experience.”
“Trust me, I know the power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day. I know the immigrant experience because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico. My children are bicultural and bilingual,” Bush said, according to the New York Times. Bush’s wife, Columba, was born and raised in Mexico.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who leads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, credits Bush’s rhetoric and work on immigration reform. Immigration “is the Jordan that Republicans must cross in order to step into the promised land of the electorate,” he said in an interview, using a biblical reference to the river the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land.
Rodriguez warned that in the coming year, as Republican presidential candidates talk about immigration reform, “The rhetoric throughout the course of the campaign needs to be very nuanced, very affirming of the Latino community.”
If Bush runs for president, Cortes said, Latinos will be eager to hear what he has to say about education reform and economic growth. But overhauling the nation’s immigration system remains a special, often emotional concern for Latinos.
“If you have a good message on jobs, education and immigration, I can’t see you losing the Hispanic vote,” Cortes said.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) used some of his boldest religious language yet this year in his speech Wednesday to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Houston, Texas.
In light of the spiritually laden messages coming from some other Republican presidential contenders, Bush has been comparatively less vocal about his personal faith.
But in his speech of Wednesday, Bush delved into his spiritual journey, calling it “one of the most important times of my life, the conversion to the faith of my wife.”
Bush converted to Catholicism in 1994, after his defeat in the Florida gubernatorial race.
“When I joined the church, like millions before me and millions who will come after me, I discovered in Christ the grace to do the Lord’s work,” he told the crowd, praising the powerful and liberating influence of “Christian conscience in action.”
“In America today it is important to respect and to protect Christians acting on their faith, not just talking about their faith but there is a constitutional right and more importantly, for a loving society Christians need to have the space to be able to act on their conscience,” he added, comments timed just one day after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutional right of states to ban gay marriage.
Bush switched back and forth between English and Spanish in his remarks to the Texas crowd, that included his parents, former President George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush.
Gov. Bush admitted he was “very intimated” to speak before the pair.
“The looming presence of my mother will make it hard,” he joked.
Wednesday marked Bush’s second major outreach to the Hispanic community this week.
On Tuesday, he traveled to Puerto Rico for a series of town hall style events and in his remarks on Wednesday, he highlighted the importance of upward mobility for all in the U.S. “no matter where you come for.”
“It doesn’t matter if you have a vowel at the end of your name … every American, every person in this country has the right to rise up.”
Bush also stressed his belief in the need for immigration reform: “we have to fix a broken immigration system and do it in short order.”
“It also means dealing with the 11 million undocumented workers that are here in this country, 11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive earned legal status. This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows,” he said, prompting applause.
“This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities.”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Samuel Rodriguez, Jr., head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, took the stage and led the crowd in a prayer for Bush.
“You are a very important person. We do not know what God has for you, it could be something very significant in regard to the nations of our nation only God knows,” Rodriguez told him.
The Republican, who has not formally declared a presidential campaign, will travel to Washington, D.C. for events on Thursday and will be in North Carolina on Friday.
’11 million undocumented in this country who need to come out’
HOUSTON – Accompanied by his famous parents, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush received an enthusiastic welcome Wednesday at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which made it clear he is the leading GOP contender for the Hispanic vote.
“Historically, President George W. Bush had it right on immigration, and I do believe that Jeb Bush’s personal (story) shows he has a strong affinity with Hispanics, understands the context of immigration reform,” the NHCLC’s president, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, told WND prior to Jeb Bush’s speech.
Rodriguez clarified, however, he was not endorsing Bush either personally or on behalf of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
“I do believe Gov. Jeb Bush would be a better candidate to work with for the purpose of finding a solution to the immigration crisis,” he said, nevertheless.
Rodriguez said, however he “would not discard” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
“He is an evangelical with a strong Christian faith, and I have had discussions with Gov. Huckabee on this subject, and he is a very compassionate man,” Rodriguez said.
Huckabee is scheduled to be the group’s dinner speaker Wednesday evening.
“Governors Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio, are the GOP presidential candidates that provide space for a discussion on immigration reform.”
Excluded from Rodriguez’s favorable comments were Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who emphasize border security as a precondition to establishing a path to citizenship in any comprehensive reform legislation.
‘Super honored to speak’
Jeb Bush began his speech to the more than 1,000 assembled Hispanic evangelical leaders speaking in Spanish.
“I am super honored to speak with you today, first, because you represent the new wave of hope for this country, and second, out of respect for speaking here today in the presence of my parents,” he said, according to a WND translation, referring to former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush.
In the 25-minute speech, Bush told how he met his Mexican wife, Columba, and discussed the importance of his conversion to Catholicism. He avoided any mention of his support for the controversial Common Core education standards and addressed border security only in the context of passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“We should have a country in which it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you were born,” Bush told the evangelicals. “Every person in this country should have the right to rise up.
“Let me speak about immigration, because it is a key element of our country’s success,” he said. “We’re a nation of immigrants. This is not the time to abandon something that makes us special and unique. Because of immigration, America has the chance to become young and dynamic again, to be an emerging country again, to be of optimism, believing our future is better than our present.”
But, first, he said, “we have to fix a broken immigration system and do it in short order.”
“That means controlling the border,” he said. “That means making legal immigration easier than illegal immigration.
“But it also means dealing with the 11 million undocumented in this country who need to come out of the shadows and receive earned legal status.”
As WND reported earlier Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, addressing the group Tuesday, singled out Bush from among the GOP presidential hopefuls as the candidate with the most favorable personal and family history on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.
“I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton for president, because, in the reality of politics, I can’t get elected to Congress as a Republican in the 4th Congressional District of Illinois,” Gutierrez said, responding to a question from WND.
But if Bush wins, he said, he is “going to need me if he wants to get comprehensive immigration reform passed through the Congress.”
“My support might just be the kiss of death for Jeb Bush when conservatives get wind that ‘radical, socialist Gutierrez’ might get together with Jeb Bush, because then there would be open borders in the U.S.,” Gutierrez quipped.
The congressman said he will work with Republicans to “get immigration reform.”
“When I worked with President George W. Bush on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, I applauded him,” the congressman continued.
Gutierrez recalled that George W. Bush sent his Commerce secretaries, first Donald Evans and then Carlos Gutierrez, along with secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to “roam the halls of Congress” and garner support for the immigration bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Gutierrez stressed that U.S. demographics strongly suggest no GOP presidential candidate has any chance of winning the White House in 2016 without getting more than the 22 percent of the Hispanic vote that Mitt Romney got in 2012.
“One million Latinos turn 18 every year and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” he said. “The GOP can’t forget that 45 million of the 55 million Latinos in the United States are citizens. We vote and we sit in the pews of the nations churches with those who are not citizens, documented and undocumented alike, citizen children in the same families with undocumented parents. We all sit in church together.”
The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, or NHCLC, represents an estimated 40,000 evangelical Christian churches in the U.S. This year, the organization has joined CONELA, a Latin American-based organization that serves more than 487,000 Latino churches worldwide.
HOUSTON, April 29, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC)/CONELA today announced a new name – NHCLC/CONEL – and began its annual three-day convention of Latino Evangelical leaders in Houston, during which the following issues were discussed:
Supreme Court Oral Arguments on Same-Sex Marriage, Prayer for Nepal & Baltimore
During the opening session of the Convention, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC/CONEL, challenged the hundreds of attendees to earnestly pray for the Supreme Court to uphold the traditional, biblical definition of marriage.
“As we are speaking, something critical is taking place right now at the Supreme Court of the United States,” Rodriguez said. “We could be politically correct and have everyone love us, but there is no such thing as a ‘comfortable Christian.’
“We believe in the biblical message and the spiritual covenant of one man, one woman,” Rodriguez continued. “At the same time, we repudiate all vestiges of homophobia. We open our churches to welcome every person on the planet. We are not a social club; rather, we are called to minister to the suffering and the hurting.”
In addition, Rodriguez led attendees in praying for the individuals in Nepal who were impacted by the April 24, 2015 earthquake as well as the current unrest in Baltimore, Maryland following the death of Freddie Gray.
In a later afternoon session, Dr. Russell Moore, president of The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also addressed the issue of protecting the family and traditional marriage.
“There are some people that would tell us [Christians] that if we want to reach the culture around us, we have to stop talking about the Gospel… the only way that we can reach culture around is with an authentic Gospel,” Moore said. “If we hold to what Scripture teaches, that marriage is between one man and one woman and that marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church, they will tell us we are on wrong side of history; but the Christian church started on the wrong side of history.”
Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) spoke to the attendees during the evening session, addressing the issue of immigration, specifically protecting innocent children.
“The [immigrant] community is hungry for information, and the only community centers to which they can go is the Church, so I came here to say, ‘Thank you,’ said Gutierrez. “You influence the way people live their lives and navigate the world, and how to raise their families. Speaking for the stranger was not easy for Jesus and it is not easy for you.”
Gutierrez went on to explain his parent’s own journey of immigrating to the United States in 1952. “My mother came here from Puerto Rico,” he continued. “She came with no job, no clothes and no money, and it was the Church that gave her a coat and a job.”
Prior to Gutierrez’s address at the Convention, Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, joined him at a press conference and also recognized the Church’s role in caring for immigrants.
“There are things our congregations can do that the government cannot do,” said Rincones. “The government can pass laws and write a check, but it cannot love.”
Pro-Israel Coalition Launch
NHCLC/CONEL officially launched the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition (HILC) during today’s convention, which will create the world’s largest and most influential Pro-Israel Latino entity.
HILC’s vision is to build bridges of reconciliation between Jew and Arab, to create a firewall of protection against the persecution of Arab Christians throughout the Middle East, to educate the church about the Christian persecution and to spread the Gospel to the Muslim Arab World.
Mario Bramnick, senior pastor of New Wine Ministries Church in Cooper City, Florida, will serve as President of HILC, working alongside NHCLC/CONEL President Rodriguez.
“This coalition is critical for Hispanics and our nation,” said Bramnick at a press conference announcing HILC. “Those who curse Israelwill be cursed. As biblical believers in the Word of God we must be pro-Israel. The day America turns its back on Israel will be day God’s judgment comes down.”
New Organizational Name
In reference to the new organizational name, NHCLC/CONEL, Dr. Gus Reyes, chief operating officer, explained that “con el,” Spanish for “with him” better reflects the dual mission of NHCLC working with Christ to make an impact around the world.
A full list of sessions and press conferences for April 29 and further media information can be found athttp://alarryross.com/newsroom/nhclc/2015nhclcconvention/.
NHCLC/CONEL is the world’s largest Hispanic Christian organization. It serves as a representative voice for the more than 100 million Hispanic Evangelicals assembled in over 40,000 U.S. churches and another 500,000 congregations spread throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora. For additional information, visit http://www.nhclc.org.
SOURCE National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
HOUSTON – Former Florida governor and potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush is in Houston appealing to Hispanic voters at a leadership conference.
The former governor spoke earlier Wednesday at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He took the opportunity to talk family and faith as well as the issue of immigration.
“We have to fix a broken immigration system here in this country,” said Bush.
His parents — former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush — were also in the crowd watching the speech.
Gov. Jeb Bush Applauds Support for High Education Standards at Annual Meeting of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
Gov. Jeb Bush Applauds Support for High Education Standards at
Annual Meeting of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
President and First Lady George H.W. Bush in Attendance
HOUSTON, Texas, April 30, 2015 – Gov. Jeb Bush, presumed 2016 presidential candidate, yesterday
addressed The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC)/CONEL annual convention
of more than 1,000 Latino Evangelical leaders in Houston, Texas. As his parents, President and First Lady
George H.W. Bush looked on, Gov. Bush spoke about the importance of faith and the Latino culture on
issues impacting America including education reform and high academic standards.
“Jeb Bush is a blessing for our nation,” Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC/CONEL, said in
introducing him from the platform. “He speaks the language of faith, family, religious freedom and
entrepreneurship. And he agrees we don’t want our children to have multi-generational dependence on
Uncle Sam … we don’t want to survive, we want to thrive.”
Gov. Bush addressed the audience in English as well as Spanish, and specifically thanked the NHCLC for an
unwavering commitment to raising educational standards for American students. Bush commented on a shared
motivation for demanding education equity, “America should have lofty expectations for every child because
God gives every child the ability to learn.” The former Governor also shared examples of successful education
reform from his own state of Florida, which is now a national leader in education.
“You can move the needle – you can change the lives of thousands and thousands of families if you have
the courage to have school choice, robust accountability, higher standards and a focus on early childhood
literacy,” Gov. Bush said. “Don’t believe that this is an impossible task.”
“We need to raise the standards across the board,” said Dr. Carlos Campo, NHCLC/CONEL education
directive leader, president-elect at Ashland University and founder of the Faith & Education Coalition. “We
must begin a new narrative. It is now time to prepare our students effectively for life, for college and for
being an engaged citizen in this country. We must raise the standards in the classroom, in church and in
NHCLC/CONEL education initiatives and resources are found online at www.faithandeducation.com,
alongside links to Christian university and seminary partners.
NHCLC/CONEL is the world’s largest Hispanic Christian organization. It serves as a representative voice
for the more than 100 million Hispanic Evangelicals assembled in over 40,000 U.S. churches and another
500,000 congregations spread throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora. For additional information, visit
HOUSTON (AP) – The man at the microphone spoke in a language most Republican presidential primary voters do not understand.
“You are part of the new wave of hope for this country,” Jeb Bush said in fluent Spanish to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference this week. Switching to English, he said the U.S. needs immigrants for the country “to become young and dynamic again.”
It doesn’t seem to matter that Hispanic voters typically do not have much say in Republican primaries. The former Florida governor’s play to Hispanic values and policy goals has begun to shape his young political operation. Well before the first votes are cast for the Republican nomination – and even before he declares his candidacy – Bush is strengthening ties with Hispanic voters who will be important in the head-to-head contest for the presidency in 2016.
At his side throughout this week’s appearances in Puerto Rico and Texas was Raul Henriques, a fresh-faced “body man” recently hired because Bush wanted a Spanish speaker to travel with him regularly. As well, Emily Benavides stood at the back of the hotel ballroom during Bush’s Houston address Wednesday, now on board to advise him on Hispanic media. And Bush’s Mexican-born wife, Columba, is expected to start doing more in the rising campaign, also with Hispanic media.
Bush primarily speaks Spanish with his wife. He has lived in Puerto Rico and Venezuela; he governed a state with a large Hispanic population – and he regularly cooks Latin cuisine at home.
“You’re not going to find a more Latinized anglo than Jeb Bush,” says Jorge Arrizurieta, a Miami-based Cuban-American who worked closely with the Bush family for decades. “There really hasn’t been a candidate ever in our country that has these attributes.”
It’s unclear whether those attributes will help or hurt Bush in the Republican primaries, where a vocal conservative minority holds outsized influence. Appealing to such voters, Mitt Romney in 2012 suggested that immigrants in the U.S. illegally should “self-deport.” The remark may have helped him win the GOP nomination, but it probably hurt him in the general election.
Not since the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush, Jeb’s older brother, has a Republican presidential candidate earned as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney got a dismal 27 percent in the 2012 contest against President Barack Obama.
Bush does not have a monopoly on Hispanic interest in the GOP race. Cuban-American Marco Rubio of Florida, also fluent in Spanish, is in the hunt. So, too, is Cuban-American Ted Cruz of Texas, who has only limited abilities in Spanish. Others, without cultural connections, may well appeal to Hispanics, too.
Yet Bush has been the most aggressive Republican proponent of an immigration policy that would allow some 11 million people in the country illegally to stay under certain conditions. Rubio authored a Senate bill with such a provision, but he backed off after a conservative backlash. Cruz and most others in the Republican field oppose the policy they call “amnesty.”
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said Republicans must be more willing to “reach out and touch that brown hand.” He praised Bush’s approach, saying he connects with the Latino community “politically, socially and intellectually.”
“Jeb Bush has the possibility of engaging the Latino voter in the way George Walker Bush did in 2004, or even more,” Rodriguez said. His organization, which Jeb Bush addressed in Houston, is socially conservative but closer to Democrats on immigration policy.
Bush, a Latin American studies major in college, met his wife while studying in Mexico. They spent two years in Venezuela early in his business career before Bush moved to Puerto Rico for six months to run his father’s 1980 primary campaign. The couple settled in Miami.
“Hispanic engagement is going to be one of his top priorities,” said Benavides, who served as Romney’s Hispanic press secretary. “It has been for decades now.” She said it’s “part of who he is.”
On his recent trip, Bush answered questions in the language they were posed in and switched seamlessly between English and Spanish, drawing thunderous applause.
“Imaginate!” – Imagine that! – he quipped at times during his Houston speech. In Puerto Rico, he embraced supporters as they took selfies, and offered a modest “Gracias por venir” – thank you for coming – which drew wide smiles.
“I love it,” said Maria Elena Cruz, a 59-year-old government worker from Toa Baja. “He speaks Spanish just like us.”
HOUSTON, TEXAS — In a flexing of its growing political muscle, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) welcomed to their convention this week two Republicans who have their eye on the White House: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. At the event, the group unveiled a challenge to presidential candidates to pledge support for four “pillars” of immigration reform: “No amnesty, secure borders, secure families, and an integration process.” But the millions-strong Evangelical group showed little interest in holding Bush or Huckabee’s feet to the fire on what they claim is their make-or-break issue.
At a press conference Wednesday, Huckabee said he would not even consider supporting immigration reform until the US/Mexico border is further militarized.
“The first thing you do is not go down to Home Depot and shop for a faucet. You stop the leak. And the first thing we have to do is to control our border,” he said. “Once we have convinced the American people that we’re serious about that, then I think Americans are willing to have a rational and sensible but just approach to the process.”
When pressed on whether he would ever support a path to legal status or citizenship for undocumented people, he responded: “You’re asking me to get to second base, but we haven’t gotten to first yet.” As for the NHCLC’s immigration reform pledge, Huckabee told ThinkProgress: “I haven’t read it, so it would be hard to commit to signing something I haven’t read. I won’t even sign a bank note I haven’t read.”
Huckabee was seated directly next to NHCLC president Samuel Rodriguez as he said this — the man who earlier that day had vowed that religious Latino voters will abandon Republicans who don’t get on board with immigration reform, including a path to legal status for undocumented people in the United States.
But not only did Huckabee’s speech to the roughly thousand conference attendees get multiple standing ovations, Rodriguez publicly bestowed a blessing on him, booming into the microphone: “Righteous God, we thank you, we give you honor and glory for the life the ministry and the calling and the assignment of Mike Huckabee, we know you have great things in store for him, you have already put so many good things in his life… In these difficult days in our nation, you have gifted him and called him to be light in the midst of darkness.”
Huckabee’s speech barely touched on immigration, focusing instead on his impoverished childhood and religious calling. “I don’t speak Spanish…but I do speak Jesus,” he said, a line that won raucous cheers from the audience.
The other major speaker at the conference, Jeb Bush, showed off his ability to speak both Spanish and Jesus earlier Wednesday — and offered much stronger support for reforming the nation’s immigration system. In his speech, Bush endorsed a plan similar to the one that passed the Senate but stalled in the House in 2013.
“We have to fix the broken immigration system, and that means controlling the border and making sure legal immigration is easier than illegal,” Bush said. “But it also means dealing with 11 million undocumented workers… where they pay a fine, they work, they do what they want to do which is come out of the shadows, provide for their families and over a period of time get earned legal status.”
Attendees from around the country told ThinkProgress they were impressed with the speech.
“He was very clear when speaking about immigration: he supports reform for immigrants,” Pastor Jorge Florian of the Houston church Fuente de Dios said in Spanish. “I know he’s not even the official nominee for President yet, but for me Jeb Bush has a lot of potential, in part because of his legacy, his father.”
“I like that he put a lot of emphasis on education, and I think that’s really important, because the dropout rate from where I’m from is really high, and is a lot of Hispanics,” added Daisy Gonzalez, a young Hispanic evangelical from Del Rio, Texas. “The fact that [Jeb Bush] comes from a Christian family and a great family as well… Because if they have these important values in their life, what makes you think they’re not going to implement them in your country?”
Martaliana Ponce, a Colombian national whose family lives in Miami, said what caught her attention “was what he said about educating our young people, especially those who are low-income. I also like that he’s for uniting families. It’s so sad that there are families where the parents can’t even see their children because the country won’t let them enter.”
Yet some at the conference voiced doubt that Bush’s rhetoric on immigration would translate into concrete policies that help Latino families.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who addressed the conference Tuesday, told reporters he was recently asked by students at the University of Chicago which Republican presidential candidate he could best work with on immigration. He named Jeb Bush, in part because of his sympathetic rhetoric about immigrants and in part because George W. Bush tried to pass immigration reform while president.
“I don’t think the words had left my mouth when it entered the blogosphere and everyone said it was the kiss of death,” Gutierrez said. “Right after I said that thing about Jeb Bush he said, ‘I want to revoke the President’s executive order to let 5 million people get their papers.’ I hope my kind words didn’t cause him to take that kind of position.”
Looking ahead toward the 2016 race, Bush has shown himself more willing to voice positions that satisfy the conservative rank and file, who generally endorse reform but only in highly qualified versions, and who already view him as too moderate on the issue. But after the 2012 election, the Republican party underwent serious soul-searching on their outreach to Hispanics and Latinos,publishing a report that noted the dramatic drop in support from the demographic and calling on future GOP candidates to court the group and endorse some form of immigration reform. What’s less clear is whether Bush and Huckabee’s God-talk will be enough to muster a new GOP coalition that includes this group of Hispanic faithful, or if fluctuating stances on the undocumented will leave the party once again abandoned by the rapidly-expanding voting block.