HOUSTON — As far as recent forums featuring Republican White House hopefuls go, Wednesday's meeting of Hispanic evangelicals here was a bit unusual. Its host is an ardent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, a dirty phrase to many GOP primary voters. And the two potential candidates who spoke did little to back away from views on immigration that have gotten them in trouble with that conservative wing of their party.
The gathering of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference put on vivid display the disparate audiences some Republicans are speaking to on immigration as they try to pave a path to the White House. In one corner are the conservative activists in places like Iowa and South Carolina who lustily applaud as GOP speakers denounce "amnesty" on the stump. In the other corner are those who filled the ballroom here, conservative-leaning voters for whom the immigration issue strikes closer to home than it does for the average Hawkeye State powerbroker.
Samuel Rodriguez, the fiery reverend who heads the NCHLC, said that when it comes to reaching Hispanic evangelicals, it will be much easier for Republicans to emphasize religious freedom rather than flesh out their views on the touchier subject of immigration. He vowed not to let any presidential candidate off the hook.
“We will press them on immigration. I will press them on immigration — I can guarantee you that," Rodriguez told reporters. “I want a presidential hopeful on the GOP side who’ll say, ‘Listen, if I’m elected president, I guarantee you I will sit down with Congress, and we will pass comprehensive immigration reform that will secure the border. It will not be amnesty, but it will provide a pathway for integration to the millions that are currently here undocumented because we are pro-faith, we are pro-family and we do not believe in separating families.' Period."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose immigration position is considered one of his biggest liabilities among Republican primary voters, addressed the issue head-on Wednesday — to the point of overshadowing the education-reform message on which his speech was centered. He unapologetically affirmed his support for a pathway to legal status for the millions of people in the country of illegally, stressing they have to earn it.
"This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows," Bush said. "This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities."
The bilingual Bush worked hard to connect with the audience of hundreds of Hispanic evangelicals, not letting them forget his wife's Mexican roots and occasionally breaking into asides in Spanish that impressed at least one attendee.
"This guy's talking from the inside," said Enrique Pinedo, a reverend from Florida who caught Bush's speech. Pinedo added his former governor could have been more detailed on immigration, but he cut Bush some slack, recognizing the political reality he faces. "I know that he's in the Republican Party."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is expected to announce next week whether he is running for president, addressed the conference Wednesday evening and only glossed over the hot-button issue, opting for an emphasis on religious freedom that Rodriguez predicted would come more naturally to Republicans.
"This country has been a magnet for people throughout the ages," Huckabee said, putting a positive spin on a word frequently used by the GOP's fiercest critics of immigration reform. "There's so many arguments about immigration policy — arguments about who should come and when and how.
"There's no time to argue all of those," he added before repeating a well-honed line from his stump speech, drawing loud applause. Americans should "get on our knees and thank God that we live in a country that people are trying to get into, not a country they're trying to get out of."
Huckabee has called a pathway to citizenship a "rational approach" to immigration reform, though he was much more reluctant to re-endorse the idea Wednesday. He told reporters that dealing with the millions of people in the country illegally is somewhat of an "unnecessary controversy" unless Americans are confident the border is secure.
Still, Huckabee made no bones about the political thorniness of immigration, volunteering that he has long taken heat for championing legislation in Arkansas that let undocumented immigrants qualify for in-state tuition. And he acknowledged his party is not unified on the issue as it barrels toward the 2016 presidential election. "I don't think there's a consensus," Huckabee said.
Rodriguez is hoping to fill that void and was unambiguous throughout the conference about holding Republicans' feet to the fire. The NHCLC counts more than 40,000 churches among its members and tends to line up with the GOP on social issues but sees immigration somewhat differently.
In policy papers distributed to reporters, the NHCLC said it "reluctantly supported" President Barack Obama's executive action last year shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, preferring a congressional solution to a unilateral move. A number of White House hopefuls including Bush have said they would reverse Obama's executive action if elected.
Critics have nonetheless slapped the NHCLC with the label of "pro-amnesty," and organizations that have hardline positions on immigration reform view it with a skeptical eye.
"This is a group that has been pushing for mass immigration for a long time," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Mehlman, like others skeptical of the NHCLC, contended some groups who purport to have the best interests of Hispanics in mind are driven by a business lobby looking for cheap labor. "They're trying to influence the Republican Party — it's not entirely a grassroots movement."
Part of the NHCLC's efforts to influence the presidential conversation include a pledge it would like the candidates to sign that hints at a pathway to citizenship. Asked if he would sign the pledge, Huckabee told a reporter Wednesday he had not yet seen it.
"I'll happily read it, get to know it and give you an answer on that," Huckabee replied as Rodriguez, seated beside the might-be presidential candidate, nodded along enthusiastically.