Democratic presidential candidates tried to woo the nation's Hispanic community on Sunday, promising to begin working on immigration in their first year of office.
In the first ever Spanish-language presidential debate, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, the anchors of the nation's largest Spanish-language network, Univision, posed questions in Spanish and the candidates had earpieces to hear simultaneous translations into English. The candidates' responses were simultaneously translated into Spanish for broadcast.
Not surprisingly, both Ramos and Salinas, who vocally support a path to legalization for the nation's estimated 12 million immigrants, framed their questions with the basic assumption that immigrants, including those in the country illegally, face discrimination and have been unfairly demonized – a view not universally shared in the English-language media.
All seven candidates said they would work on changing immigration laws during their first year in the White House.
"We all know that this has become a contentious political issue," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said. "It is being demagogued, and I believe that it is being used to bash immigrants, and that must stop. The Republican candidates need to understand that they are doing a great disservice to our country."
Clinton, who leads national polls of Latino voters by a wide margin, criticized the immigration bill proposed in the last Republican-dominated Congress. That legislation, which she called "particularly egregious," would have penalized those who help illegal immigrants.
"I said it would have criminalized the good Samaritan. It would have criminalized Jesus Christ," she said.
When the candidates were asked why they supported a wall along the Mexican border and not a similar fence along the U.S.-Canadian border, most avoided answering directly, appearing to have been caught somewhat off-guard by the question.
Salinas and Ramos called specifically on Clinton, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) to account for their votes to build a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. All three, in response, noted their support for broader rights for both legal and illegal Latino immigrants but also said tighter border security is important, stating simply that they believed security was a key part of comprehensive immigration reform.
"That has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform," Clinton said.
"I do favor more security on the border and in some cases a physical border because that has to be part of securing our borders," she added.
With many of the leading Republican presidential candidates opposed to President Bush's immigration policy – that some have labeled "amnesty" because it would create a citizenship path for some illegal immigrants – Democrats are seeing an opportunity to peel off Latino voters in 2008.
Very recently, prominent Latino evangelical leaders expressed their disappointment at Republican lawmakers' lack of support for the recent immigration reform bill, leading experts to predict that the GOP presidential hopefuls may have lost their Latino evangelical voters base.
Republican senators were held responsible for derailing this summer's comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill as three-quarters of the Senate's Republicans voted to kill the bill, which fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and move toward final passage of the legislation.
"They completely abandoned us," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, according to The Dallas Morning
Rodriguez, a Republican proponent, tried to rally support among Republican senators for a bill which he considers a moral and biblical response to the immigration crisis.
"We were divided on global warming, but not on immigration," commented Rodriguez, noting Hispanic leaders in all 50 state chapters of the NHLC believe Latino evangelicals will now not show up at the polls for Republicans.
The NHCLC is the largest Hispanic Evangelical organization in the United States, representing some 15 million evangelical members. The NHCLC is the sister organization of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Rodriguez's prediction should strike Republican White House hopefuls as a serious problem given statistics on Latino Protestant voting trend.
In 2004, President George W. Bush received 68 percent of the voting population who identified themselves as Latino Protestant who attended church weekly. Although the group was not a dominant voting base for Bush, swing groups such as Latino evangelicals can play a significant role in close elections, pollster John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said to the Dallas Morning News.
Rodriguez, and others like him, are now questioning whether they can label the GOP party as the "party of Jeff Sessions, Tom Tancredo and James Sensenbrenner" who were strong opponents of the immigration bill, or the party of George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain who are both strongly in favor of the bill.
Notably, Univision had offered a platform similar to Sunday night's 90-minute forum at the University of Miami for Republicans. It was shelved, however, after only one of the nine GOP contenders – McCain – agreed to appear.
Among the Republican field, McCain has been the lone defender of the White House-backed immigration bill that foundered in the Senate. According to the Rev. Lynn Godsey, who works with Latino Protestants in North Texas, McCain is the only Republican presidential candidate in good standing with Latino evangelicals.
William McKenzie, an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News, said he usually likes to suggest how candidates or officials can head off "a coming disaster."
"This one's hard because most of the GOP presidential contenders are running away from the Bush-McCain line on immigration," he wrote recently. "That means they are only digging a deeper grave with a natural Republican constituency."
McKenzie advised Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls to make more efforts to speak to Latino evangelical leaders. He noted that President Bush has met twice this year already with Latino evangelical pastors.
"But Republicans are moving into the post-Bush era," commented McKenzie. "As they do, Latino evangelicals may not go with them."
In addition to the immigration issue, democratic White House candidates on Sunday embraced Hispanic concerns by unanimously promising to bring troops home from Iraq.
With the moderator of the debate noting that two-thirds of Hispanics want a withdrawal from Iraq, the candidates had an ideal audience to criticize the war.
Sunday's debate happened to be held on the eve of a war assessment by U.S. commanding Gen. David Petraeus. During the televised event, the presidential hopefuls said troops should begin coming home no matter what the report says.
Christian Post reporter Michelle Vu in Washington contributed to this report.