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Facing Trump, conservative Hispanics find themselves at a crossroads

Hispanic Republicans who’ve fought for years to make the party more appealing to Latinos refuse to attend the GOP convention
Univision News Logo
13 Jul 2016 – 01:18 PM EDT
Hispanic Republicans are having a hard time getting on the Trump bandwagon. Crédito: Getty Images

Since Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote to President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, Hispanic Republican leaders have urged the Grand Old Party to appeal to immigrant communities who have long felt excluded by their candidates’ speeches.

The year after Obama won 70% of the Hispanic vote, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus circulated an open letter to Republicans warning: “If you’re not engaging with the Hispanic community, you better get to work.”

Almost three years after that letter – in which Priebus noted that "Republicans have to remember that it’s not just about what we say, but how we say it" – the party faces a convention in which many of its Hispanic leaders feel unable to publicly defend a candidate like Donald Trump, who has attacked the community with anti-immigrant rhetoric which many have called racist.

"The party had done a pretty admirable job gaining Latino support since Ronald Reagan, and that had boomed during the administration of George W. Bush," said Rosario Marin, a Republican leader in California and U.S. treasurer during the Bush administration. Marin, who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was 14, was the first U.S. treasurer born outside the United States.

"With McCain and Mitt Romney we saw the numbers go down, but the arrival of [Trump] was devastating to our community," Marin said.

Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump lashed out against Mexican "rapists." He also questioned the ethics of Judge Gonzalo Curiel -- who’s overseeing the fraud case against Trump University in San Diego -- due to his Hispanic ancestry.

"Five days of mourning"

The Republican Party has celebrated the election of two Latino governors, Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico, plus Latino senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and a sizable number of Hispanic legislators.

And yet, the presidential primaries have managed to undo that unity, as it’s become very hard for Latinos to support policies like a wall along the border with Mexico or mass deportations.

"None of us who have worked for more than 30 years with the Latino community are going to campaign for a man who not only does not deserve our vote, but has done everything possible to lose it," Marin said, adding that she will skip the Republican Convention for the first time ever. She has served as a delegate five times.

"For many of us, it has been very painful to see the party remain silent as Trump makes his statements against the Latino community," she said. "This time the convention will not be a party, but a funeral. I will mourn for five days."

Other Hispanic leaders like Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, representatives from Florida, have said they will not vote for Trump. "He is a very offensive person and is someone who has little knowledge of how government works," Curbelo said in a recent interview.

A Curbelo spokeswoman confirmed to Univision that the congressman will not attend the convention and that his vote against Trump is "a moral issue.”

Better a blank vote than a vote for Clinton

Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Washington-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said most Hispanic leaders "feel uncomfortable with Mr. Trump because of the immigration proposals he's made."

"I led the effort during the primaries not to endorse or vote for him,” he said. “Now we'll see if he'll change his earlier position.”

Aguilar added that "Trump has become more careful in his comments about the Hispanic community," referring to comments about the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants. He’s also changed his tone to focus more on the restriction of Muslim immigrants.

"If Trump changes the narrative and begins to talk about legalization for the undocumented community, it's possible we could reconsider our position,” Aguilar noted. “Otherwise we'll keep advocating for a blank vote.”

With less than a week to go before the Republican National Convention, hopes that Trump will ingratiate himself with the Latino electorate are low. But that doesn't mean Hispanic Republicans are supporting Hillary Clinton, either.

"What we've made clear is that Clinton is unacceptable to the Hispanic community because in 2007 she helped kill immigration reform,” said Aguilar, who will attend the Republican convention as an observer. “Two years ago she supported the immediate deportation of unaccompanied minors."

"A telenovela villain"

Artemio Muñiz, president of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans in Texas, who will go to Cleveland as an alternate delegate, argues that "it is difficult to be excited about or defend the positions of Mr. Trump," who he says has become "a telenovela villain" for the Hispanic community.

"His campaign was designed to win the Anglo vote,” Muñiz says. “The Republicans angry about what Obama has done think they can get votes from independent Democrats. The Mexican vote, which represents 65% to 70% of the national Hispanic vote, is not part of that strategy.”

For Muñiz, the only way for Trump to win over Latino voters is for him to promise not to talk about deportations and to allow immigrants to become documented without having to return to their country of origin. Muñiz’s parents immigrated illegally from Mexico and received amnesty from President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

"The Republican Party is in danger, even at the state and local level,” he says. “It's very easy for Democrats to attack us.”

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 24% of Hispanic voters support Donald Trump, a larger number than both John McCain and Mitt Romney won in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Nevertheless, 66% of Latino voters prefer Clinton. And in another poll, Pew found that 62% of Latinos have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party - the highest level since since 1992.