Arizona Law Spurs Conservatives to Push for Immigration Reform

Arizona Law Spurs Conservatives to Push for Immigration Reform

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Conservative leaders called on Pres. Barack Obama to make the first move on immigration reform and for Republicans to reclaim the issue from the fringe.

“The only way we can make this happen is with presidential leadership, and President Obama has failed to act,” said Alfonso Aguilar, former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, appointed by George W. Bush, Thursday during a teleconference of conservative leaders representing faith, business and political groups. “If President Obama were to step up and seriously address the issue, Republicans would step forward and work with him to develop a plan that works. It’s the president’s turn.”

Religious leaders in Arizona said the state’s new law is already having a devastating effect on their congregations. Since SB1070 was signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Friday, making it a crime to be undocumented, clergy say their parishioners have begun flocking to other states, and ministers who serve the poor are afraid that they could be prosecuted for aiding undocumented immigrants.

“We have pastors leaving Arizona. Racial profiling has already begun,” said Rev. Eve Núñez, president of the Arizona Latino Commission and vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Phoenix.

Núñez says she has talked to more than 120 clergy in the last week, and “across the board, they’re already losing members.” Some have lost 30 families, she said. Others have lost 50. “I just got off the phone with a pastor who said half of his church is leaving to Las Vegas," she said. "The other half is going to California.”

Clergy are also afraid that their own acts of charity could put them at risk.

“Pastors that I’ve known for 30 years that have been serving the poor, using vans to bring people to church, now could be felons for transporting undocumented immigrants,” said Núñez, adding that they could be charged a $1,000 fine for each person they transport, and if there are 10 people, it could be considered a felony.

Conservative leaders said the GOP needs to take back the issue of immigration reform, and not be drowned out by what they see as a xenophobic minority.

The new Arizona law is “anti-Latino, anti-family, anti-immigration, anti-Christian, unconstitutional and anti-conservative,” according to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

“To Republicans, we say, ‘You are either the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, or you are the party of David Duke, Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan,’” Rodriguez said.

Immigration reform is in line with GOP values, speakers said and many elements at the heart of conservatism are not possible without immigration.

“If we want to be the party of growth, entrepreneurship and free enterprise, we have to be the party of immigration,” said Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of commerce under the George W. Bush administration.

And if the GOP can take the issue on successfully, conservative leaders say it could reverse the recent trend of Latinos flocking to the Democratic Party.

“We would finally be able to effectively engage the Hispanic community,” said Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership of Conservative Principles. “Latinos are conservative. They are a natural constituency for us.”

For example, many Latinos are “pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and extremely entrepreneurial,” said Aguilar. Latinos open businesses at a rate three times as fast as the national average, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But many voiced concerns that the Democrats’ current push for an immigration bill was more about politics in an election year than real reform.

Gutierrez warned that Republicans should not get dragged into what he called a “false reform effort,” saying he was “suspicious of certain members of Congress” who are picking the issue up right before an election, “not to pass reform, but to pick a fight.”

This politicking, Gutierrez said, “uses Hispanics as a political tool.”

In order to avoid this, Gutierrez said, it may be smart to delay immigration reform: “Don’t be surprised if the best thing is to wait 'til 2011 to vote,” he said.

But this has been a matter of debate among Republicans.

“Some are saying if we push too hard this year, we won’t be able to pass it this year, next year, for three years,” said Juan Hernandez, who served as the first U.S.-born cabinet member in Mexico's government, heading the President’s Office for Mexicans Abroad for Mexican President Vicente Fox. “Others say, ‘Back in the 60s we were told the same thing: Wait ‘til the time is right for civil rights.’”

Meanwhile, conservative groups are already planning to call attention to the need for reform.

Clergy from Arizona will be traveling to Washington on May 1 to hand deliver a letter to Obama. Churches across the country are planning a national 40-day fast beginning May 1. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference has called for civil disobedience and is in discussion about boycotting Arizona. Some conservatives even plan to participate in the May 1 rallies, although others are sitting out the protests, believing they aren’t a reflection of conservative voices.

Hernandez, for his part, says he will be at the May 1 rally with a sign that says, “I’m conservative and I support immigration reform.”

“I don’t believe that many of us conservatives have been loud enough in supporting our dear brothers and sisters who have no voice,” Hernandez said.