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Path to a Pathway

• October 02, 2008 • 2:06 PM

ImmigrationPAC hopes to leverage the Hispanic faith community and help elect federal candidates who support “an earned pathway” to citizenship for undocumented migrants.

So what would Jesus do about illegal immigration? It may seem an odd question, but it’s one that Jose Cruz, president of a Chicago consulting firm specializing in Hispanic outreach, wants to put at the forefront of the November election. In February, Cruz and a small group of mostly Hispanic business owners and professionals in Chicago launched ImmigrationPAC, which is raising campaign funds for federal candidates who support “an earned pathway to citizenship” for millions of undocumented immigrants.

For Cruz, an evangelical pastor, the effort is nothing less than a mission.

“One of the reasons you’ve seen the Hispanic faith-based community fall out of the hands of the religious right is because the religious right did not embrace the pro-immigrant stance and continues not to embrace it,” Cruz says. “The Christian Hispanic evangelical leaders and Hispanic faith-based community as a whole started waking up and said, ‘Wait a second. I agree with you on gay marriage; I agree with you on pro-life issues. But you’re trying to deport a third, a half, 90 percent of my congregation, who are hardworking, good people who are just here trying to make ends meet for their family.'”

There has been no dearth of pro-Hispanic organizations to march, lobby and otherwise agitate for immigration law reform, but this appears to be the first Latino-organized political action committee dedicated to the cause. “We think we are the next step in the political evolution of the pro-immigrant electorate that’s out there,” Cruz says. “We’re going to draw a line here in the sand, and we’re going to say, ‘If you are pro-pathway, you are supporting our community, and we will financially support you.'”

In theory, ImmigrationPAC will give to candidates regardless of party affiliation. “One thing I’ve been incredibly missional to is sticking with a mainstream, moderate message on the issue of immigration reform,” Cruz says. “This is not just a Democrat, anti-Republican issue.”

Still, Cruz’s political roots are distinctly Democratic. In the early ’70s, his aunt, Miriam Cruz, was named first assistant for Hispanic Affairs under then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. A few years later, Jose’s dad gave Jimmy Carter a bilingual Bible when the Georgia governor visited Chicago on a presidential campaign stop. Miriam soon served as President Carter’s deputy assistant for Hispanic Affairs.

In his early 20s, Jose Cruz worked at the White House under Suzanna Valdez, President Bill Clinton’s director of Hispanic Affairs. In 1996, he helped manage logistics at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After finishing law school at Southern Illinois University, he joined Equity Research, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting and lobbying firm handling education issues. In 2004, he helped organize canvassers in South Florida for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Two years later, along with Miriam, he started a consultancy in Chicago specializing in Hispanic outreach for politicians, businesses and colleges.

He may be a disciple of Democratic Party acolytes, but Cruz’s reading of the 2008 political landscape is colored by another kind of faith. Besides his political work, Cruz is associate pastor at First Spanish Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Chicago. He counsels parishioners and trades off giving sermons every other Sunday with pastor Ruben Cruz, his father. His grandfather, Pedro Cruz, started the church in 1960.

Increasingly, First Spanish’s parishioners — mostly lower-class Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Guatemalans and Mexicans — have told him they live in fear of deportation and separation from their relatives. He constantly hears stories from Hispanic pastors in Arizona, California and other states in the throes of federal and state crackdowns on Latino immigrants. “The ones who are at the tip of the spear on this issue are the Hispanics serving the lower-income churches,” he says.

Cruz and his Chicago group decided to move ahead with the PAC after he made a trip to Arizona in January to meet with Latino community leaders and other ministers.

Since the passage of Proposition 200, a 2004 ballot initiative, Arizona has evolved into the nation’s most conspicuous battleground over illegal immigration. Under Prop 200, Arizonans must present proof of citizenship before they can vote or apply for public benefits. The law also requires government employees at the state and local levels to inform immigration authorities about anyone who fails to produce such proof. In 2006, another new state law criminalized immigrant smuggling.

In one often cited case, Sonia del Cid Iscoa, a Honduran immigrant who has lived in the United States for 17 years, gave birth and fell into a coma at a Phoenix hospital. The hospital planned to have Iscoa deported, without her newborn infant or five other children, because she lacked health insurance.

Some Arizona police departments, most notably the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in the Phoenix area, have detained large numbers of Latinos and demanded their immigration papers. This year alone, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has presided over at least five saturation patrol operations in Latino areas in and around Phoenix; his officers have arrested more than 1,000 illegal immigrants since 2006.

The anti-immigrant law enforcement activity could be converting significant numbers of Latinos — even conservative ones — into a new base of support for immigration reform. “There are a lot of people who’ve reacted and registered to vote,” says Magdalena Schwartz, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor in the Phoenix area.

Many of her parishioners prefer conservative political candidates because they oppose abortion and gay marriage. But this year she’s saying it would be hypocritical to vote for such candidates if they support the crackdown “because if they’re against immigration reform, they’re separating families. They are pro-life, but they’re not pro-family. It’s pure hypocrisy!”

Schwartz and Cruz belong to a network of Latino evangelical pastors who are making support for pro-pathway candidates their top priority for this year’s election. “We will maintain mission,” Cruz assures. “My girlfriend said this: ‘This is not the abortion PAC; this is not the gay rights PAC; this is not pro-life PAC. This is ImmigrationPAC.’ This is our issue; this is our single-focus issue.”

Whether immigration reform or an anti-immigrant stance will work as a wedge issue in the Latino electorate in 2008, the way abortion and gay marriage worked for Republicans in 2000 and 2004, is a genuinely debatable question. In the 2006 congressional elections, immigration seemed to cut both ways.

“Noticing the public’s increased anxiety over the issue of immigration, especially unauthorized immigration, some Republicans thought the issue might help preserve their majorities in Congress. However, there is little evidence that this helped vulnerable GOP candidates,” political scientists David Leal, Stephen Nuño, Jongho Lee and Rodolfo de la Garza wrote in an April article in the journal Political Science & Politics.

They and other experts cite two prime examples, Republicans J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf, who took aggressive anti-immigration stances in Arizona’s 5th and 8th Congressional Districts in 2006 and lost to pro-reform candidates. Another case is that of now former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who like other Republicans drew parallels between Mexican migrants and Islamic terrorists while accusing advocates of pro-immigrant reforms of being soft on terrorism.

But the evidence doesn’t tend all in one direction. Brian Bilbray, a Republican and lobbyist for a group that wants to expel illegal immigrants and impose a moratorium on immigration, beat a pro-pathway candidate in California’s 50th Congressional District in northern San Diego County.

Overall, the use of immigration as a wedge issue in 2006 was “a wash,” says Louis DeSipio, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in the Latino electorate and immigration policy. “It worked in some primaries; it allowed some probably safe Republicans to be even more safe,” he says. “In the general, there were only a couple of races where it was actually sort of the core issue.”

But to repeat the obvious, every election is different. Record numbers of Latinos are now registered to vote. According to a nationwide survey released by the Pew Hispanic Center in July, 75 percent of them consider immigration reform either “very important or extremely important.”

“There are certainly a lot of districts, urban districts — Midwest, East, West — where a moderately pro-immigrant position, or a position talking about the need to fix the status of the unauthorized, would be a winning issue,” DeSipio says. “Certainly in rural districts and Southern districts, it would be a kiss of death.”

In the spring, Cruz called the office of a Democratic candidate in a Florida swing district to offer ImmigrationPAC’s help. He was bluntly told that the candidate opposed amnesty. (Cruz declined to identify the politician.) “They’re scared to come out because it’s a moderate-to-conservative district,” Cruz says. “They’re scared to use the word ‘amnesty.'”

The obvious presidential choice for ImmigrationPAC is Barack Obama, who is pro-pathway, but Obama has banned contributions to his campaign from PACs or lobbyists. Cruz has no compunction about donating only to GOP presidential nominee John McCain — as long as he returns to pro-reform form. McCain supported pro-pathway proposals in a failed attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate but then abandoned them for a secure-the-borders-first stance during the GOP primaries. Cruz had hoped the senator would revert to his former self at a meeting with Hispanic leaders in Chicago in June.

McCain spoke favorably of temporary-worker programs and securing the border but made no mention of a pathway to citizenship, says Cruz, who attended the gathering. “We want to support McCain because he fits the qualifications. He’s running in a swing race, and we believe he’s pro-pathway,” Cruz says. “We’re not going to make a contribution unless we have a clear message from him saying this. But that may be something that we’re going to have to wait a little bit for.”

If money were the measure of immigration politics, the apt metaphor for the fall election would be David vs. Goliath. As of late August, ImmigrationPAC had raised about $45,000 from fundraising events in Chicago, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.; that’s enough to back seven candidates if the PAC donated the federal maximum of $5,000 per race. Immigrants’ List, a pro-immigrant PAC that is not run by Latinos and is based in Washington, D.C., had about $100,000 on hand.

Political action committees that oppose legalizing undocumented immigrants have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this year. By July, Americans for Legal Immigration (Raleigh, N.C.) had already contributed about $50,000; Americans Against Illegal Immigration (Montrose, Calif.) about $80,000; and the Minuteman PAC (Houston) about $350,000.

In August, after several months of research, ImmigrationPAC announced just three races of interest. In all three, the pro-immigration reform candidates are Democrats: Linda Stender, who is running for an open seat against Republican Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th District; Martin Heinrich, who is vying with Republican Darren White for an open seat in New Mexico’s 1st District; and Dina Titus, who faces incumbent Republican Jon Porter, the congressman from Nevada’s 3rd District since 2002.

Other races Cruz was examining were in Colorado’s 4th District, which includes Fort Collins and the state’s eastern plains, and in Connecticut’s 4th District, which is northeast of New York City, as well as Senate contests in Georgia, New Mexico and Minnesota.

“This is a key wedge issue for Hispanics in the sense that you cannot come out there and say you want to deport our friends, our neighbors, our family,” Cruz says with certainty. “They’re here and they’ve been working here, and we want them to have the opportunity to get to the back of the line, to pay back taxes, to become citizens and embrace the American dream.”

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Kirk Nielsen
Kirk Nielsen is an independent journalist based in Miami Beach. For the past decade, he has tracked presidential and congressional candidates through the political swamps of southern Florida and written extensively on the persistent Cold War conundrum known as Cuban politics. His articles have also appeared in The Progressive, The Village Voice, and Poder magazine and on Salon.com. As a staff writer for Miami New Times, he and his colleagues won the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism for a series on poverty in glamorous greater Miami in 2002. In the 1990s, Nielsen filed radio and print reportage from all over the Caribbean region and southern United States for Monitor Radio and The Christian Science Monitor.

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