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Republican Hispanics Divided by Immigration Issue


Earlier this year, the Republican Party-dominated legislature of Arizona passed a law calling for police to question the immigration status of anyone they encounter in carrying out their duties who presents what is called "reasonable suspicion." The law was signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer, but largely blocked in July by a federal judge. Many Hispanics are offended by the law, and that could cost the Republican Party in years ahead.

The majority of illegal immigrants entering Arizona in recent years have come from Latin America, with Mexico accounting for more than 60 percent. Since many Hispanics in Arizona have roots in Mexico, they have sympathized with the immigrants and criticized the Arizona immigration law as racist.

Supporting SB 1070

A significant number of Hispanics, however, especially in the Republican Party, back Governor Jan Brewer and the law called SB 1070.

One of them is Jesse Hernandez, chairman of the Arizona Latino Republican Association. "There is one thing Jan Brewer is willing to do and that is enforce SB 1070, whereas her opponent, the Democrat, will not."

Despite wording in the law designed to prevent discrimination, though, most Hispanics think they will be targeted and many of them criticize Hernandez for his stand.

"They will come out with the comment that you are a racist, you turned against your own people - the name calling, 'Coconut,' brown on the outside, white on the inside, and that just shows me how ignorant (they are) and what a lack of education they have," said Hernandez. "Because, basically, what they are trying to say is that the Latino community does not have independent thinkers like any other culture, that we do not have differences of opinion on public policies."

Opposing the immigration law

But many Republican Hispanics oppose the immigration law and are upset with state party leaders. Dee Dee Garcia Blase heads the group Somos Republicans, Spanish for "We are Republicans." She said, "We are the real Republicans. We are the real ones."

Blase is trying to rally Hispanic Republicans nationwide to her organization. "We are socially conservative, we are proud of it, we are for less government, less taxes, but the SB 1070 is the litmus test as we continue to push and want to grow Hispanic Republicans."

Immigration attorney Jose Penalosa said his party is making a big mistake in alienating Hispanics. "The power of the Latino vote is going to call the shot here in the next generation and the party is going to look back and realize that they have committed generational suicide, election suicide, by not reaching out to people and trying to bring them in, people who have their own values."

Mixed election outlook for support of law

Public-opinion polls show strong support for Governor Brewer and SB1070, so Republicans likely will do well in November's midterm election. But as the Hispanic population and voter base grows, the outlook for future elections could change.

Arizona State University Political Science Professor Patrick Kenney said Republicans may be throwing away gains they made among Hispanics under the leadership of President George W. Bush.

"The Republican Party was exactly reaching out to Latinos, especially Mexicans, who are Catholic, on some of these social issues, controversial issues, like abortion, and I think they made some inroads there," said Kenney. "But those inroads have been washed away by this hardcore position by the Republican Party."

Hispanic voters favored Democrats by around two-to-one in recent Arizona elections and, as the community and voter base grows, Democratic Party spokesperson Jennifer Johnson said her party is likely to gain. "We have seen an increase in interest in voter registration drives, there has been a lot more activity among Latino community groups in registering voters and trying to give people an outlet for the anger or frustration they feel."

Issue is highly divisive

But many Hispanic families remain divided over the issue, and Jesse Hernandez said it all comes down to the failure of the federal government to stop illegal immigration at the border.

"For a society to be successful and to do well, you have got to have laws and when you start breaking laws when it is convenient to just one race, class or one group, then you start going down a very slippery slope."

The debate among Hispanics and in the public at large over the immigration issue is likely to continue well beyond this year's elections.

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