Borderline voters

"Borderline voters" Continued...

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

For example, in December 2005 the House passed a measure that would have made it a federal crime for churches, social service agencies, and other groups to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants. The Senate didn't pass the measure, but Hispanic churches offering basic help to immigrants called the legislation damaging.

Over the next two years, conservative rhetoric grew sharper and more offensive to many Hispanics. Last summer, a McCain-sponsored reform measure failed, effectively delaying immigration reform until the next presidential administration.

For Wilfredo De Jesus, that's discouraging. De Jesus is vice president of social justice for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), a Hispanic evangelical organization serving 18,000 churches. De Jesus is also pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago-a 1,000-member Hispanic congregation in the Assemblies of God denomination.

Politically, the conservative pastor says he's also made up his mind about his presidential vote: He's supporting Obama.

De Jesus told WORLD that he and other Hispanic evangelicals are concerned about pro-life and pro-marriage issues, but they are also concerned about immigration reform. Deporting an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants is unrealistic, he says: "I don't support amnesty. But I support a process for the 12 million people who are already here, even if there are penalties."

Though McCain sponsored comprehensive immigration reform in the past, the senator promised conservatives earlier this year that he would secure the borders before pursuing reform again. De Jesus fears McCain is caving to conservatives who oppose reform.

De Jesus likes Obama's immigration position, which is similar to the reform McCain has proposed. He also likes the way Obama talks about faith: "We [Hispanic evangelicals] normally would lean toward the GOP, but in Obama we have a candidate who is a Christian, but also wants to fight for immigration. And we have Republicans who don't want to."

That tension puts Hispanic evangelicals "between the proverbial rock and a hard place," says Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC. Rodriguez says Hispanic evangelicals disagree with Democratic candidates on a number of moral issues, but also resonate with their immigration stance: "At the end of the day, we're going to have to ask ourselves, 'Does immigration trump our biblical worldview?'"

Rodriquez favors border security and stopping illegal immigration, but he also favors a path for illegal immigrants to submit to the process of becoming citizens or guest workers. For Christians, interacting with outsiders has a moral dimension, he says: "How you treat these 12 million people speaks to the spiritual state of our nation."

Rodriguez says he is pleased with McCain's overall position on immigration and thinks the senator deserves "a serious look" from Hispanics. But he's dismayed with the tone in the broader Republican Party.

Luis Cortes, the Pennsylvania pastor and president of Esperanza, a faith-based Hispanic community organization, says he knows other Hispanic pastors who agree. "I have had ministers who have been Republicans all their lives tell me they're switching [to the Democratic Party]," he told WORLD.

Cortes says McCain's biggest challenge in attracting Hispanic evangelicals may be battling the harsher tone from other Republicans. "Because people don't know how to nuance their language, it turns from an anti-illegal to an anti-Hispanic conversation," he says. "We're the new boogey man."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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