Mitt Romney’s immigration address before Latino leaders on Thursday didn’t appease one important constituency lining up behind comprehensive immigration reform: evangelicals.
In a speech to The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Orlando Thursday, Romney said he would “replace” President Obama’s recent immigration policy change with something permanent and a commitment to let young immigrants who serve in the military stay in the country. While touting a commitment to legal immigration, Romney remained vague on what should be done for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. “I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner,” he said without further explanation.
Last week, a coalition of evangelical organizations, many led by Latino religious leaders, formed the Evangelical Immigration Table to mobilize support for immigration reform among the evangelical community and put pressure on legislators to pass reform. Members of the group met last week with President Obama’s staff as well as with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. They told TPM that what Romney laid out Thursday was not enough.
“We want real, you know, muscle and details,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and one of nine heads of the new coalition. “What are we going to do with the 11 to 12 million [undocumented] people here?” he said. “Right now what we lack is details on policy. Everyone is speaking in generalities. We want details.”
“He did not address at all what he would do with those who are currently here undocumented,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “And I do believe that somewhere down the road, that is the Jordan, the proverbial Jordan, that Governor Romney is going to have to cross in order to make a significant run for the Hispanic vote.”
Rodriguez believes, however, that Romney’s speech at NALEO was a step in the right direction, away from the rhetoric the candidate used during the primary and toward, eventually, a commitment to a more balanced, comprehensive reform.
Rodriguez, who has been meeting with Romney’s staff as an informal adviser on issues that pertain to Latinos, including immigration, said he believes the Romney campaign is competing hard for Latino votes and is likely to go even further on immigration reform. “I am 110 percent convinced that the Romney campaign is very concerned with the Hispanic vote,” Rodriguez said. “They understand that particularly in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia, that the Hispanic vote may very well determine the outcome of that state.” He has told the Romney campaign, he says, that they will need to address immigration reform.
Coinciding with the NALEO conference, the newly-formed group put out a radio ad, running at saturation levels on major Christian stations in Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville in Florida and as well as Denver and Colorado Springs, calling for immigration reform.
“Millions of our neighbors have come to America seeking opportunity,” Rev. Luis Cortés, president of the Latino evangelical group Esperanza, says in the ad. “As evangelical leaders, we are called by Christ to be people of compassion,” says Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. “This is why we must speak out on behalf of those affected by our broken immigration laws.”
Cortés says that support for comprehensive reform has gained steam in the last few years among evangelicals, guided in large part by the fact that the growth in the evangelical community recently has come largely from Latinos, changing their priorities. However, the radio ad is part of a push to influence not just leaders but also Anglo evangelicals for whom the issue of immigration may not be a priority.
While none of the four evangelical leaders TPM contacted felt Romney’s comments went far enough, some of the group aren’t convinced that President Obama is fully committed to reform either.
Rodriguez, who says he has spoken with the administration about immigration over the years, believes that Obama is committed to immigration reform. At the same time, he says that Romney has an “effective talking point” when he says that Obama had a majority in Congress for two years and did not pass comprehensive reform, and that it’s something Obama will have to explain to the Latino community.
Dr. Richard Land, who falls on the conservative side of the spectrum within the evangelical group, is not convinced of Obama’s dedication to reform. “I’ll wait and see,” Land said.
“They had a veto-proof majority in the first term and they didn’t bring it up,” Land said. “What I’ve told the Obama administration repeatedly is, ‘we’d like to see the same level of commitment from the Obama administration on immigration reform that we’ve seen on health care reform.’ We know what a full-court press looks like.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.