No room in the tent

Hispanic Republicans, out in the cold, angry and disillusioned, look for another political home.

Published August 15, 1996 10:50AM (EDT)


Scene One: Nicolas Britto stands at his office window in the downtown San Diego Transit building, watching protesters with placards and banners calling the GOP "the party of ignorance."

Scene Two: The mariachis are playing, the burritos are being served and the party faithful -- many wearing tags that read "The Big Tent" -- are gathered for a Hispanic Republicans reception. The rumor has it that Elizabeth Dole might appear. California Gov. Pete Wilson is scheduled for a drop-in. Both are no-shows.

For Britto, former Vice Chairman of the California Republican
Hispanic Assembly, both scenes symbolize the growing sense of frustration he feels. "My way of protesting is voting and giving money to the candidate and party of my choice. And because I came from Cuba, I am conservative and believe in less government. So I have been a Republican," says Britto, who has been a U.S. citizen for 23 years.

"But now, there is very little communication between the Republican
party and the Hispanic community," he says. "Calls to the state party chairman do not get returned. Concerns seem to go in one ear and out the other."

Despite GOP rhetoric about "a place for everyone," Britto is one of
a growing number of Republican Hispanics who are unhappy with the party, seeing "the big tent" collapsing around them and the "open door" slamming shut.

The most recent and potentially most divisive action was the platform provision calling for a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to those born to non-citizens in the U.S. "I realize we have to control entitlements, but it should not be at the expense of people born here or lawfully residing here," says Dan Guevara, a San Diego lawyer and one time active Republican. "I think this is largely a cheap political trick to influence the public against a group that exerts little if any political power. I am Republican, but I am very disillusioned with the party."

Guevara and others see the platform provision as part of a growing wave of anti-immigrant fervor within the party -- despite keynote speaker Susan Molinari's fond references to her Italian immigrant grandfather. The welfare reform bill pushed through by the GOP-controlled Congress denies benefits to legal immigrants. Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming have sponsored legislation to further restrict legal immigration. Anti-affirmative action, English-only initiatives, and a Republican-based federal bill similar to California's Proposition 187 -- which bars undocumented children from public education and medical services -- are driving further wedges between the Hispanic community and the Republican party.

"No Hispanic in the Republican party is for anyone breaking laws, and on illegal immigration, the party does not go far enough to stop it," says Oscar Padilla, an insurance broker who was the treasurer for Pete Wilson's campaign for mayor of San Diego in 1972. "But they do nothing about bringing the employers of illegal immigrants to justice. Why? Because employers of illegal immigrants -- the farmers, building contractors and hotel/motel associations -- are big contributors to Republican campaigns. Going after the illegal immigrants and not their employers is like going after the
drug addicts and not the dealers."

Hispanics are the country's fastest growing minority group. Traditionally Democratic -- up to 70 percent tend to vote that way, according to surveys -- there were signs in the 1980s of a shift toward the Republicans. "The Reagan staff reached out to the
Hispanic community," said Britto. "They listened and took into account our suggestions."

California mirrored the shift until 1994 when Proposition 187, strongly backed by Gov. Wilson, brought Hispanics to the polls in record numbers to vote against it. Prop. 187 passed by a wide margin, prompting a pro-Democratic tide among Hispanics. Given the current national Republican stance on immigration, a similar erosion of GOP support may occur across the country in November, according to Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a political research organization affiliated with Scripps College in Claremont, California. Pachon points out that the only two Republican congressmen to vote against the welfare bill were from Florida. "This is especially striking since about 90 percent of Hispanics in Florida -- mostly Cuban in heritage -- vote Republican. It shows how strong feelings are on this issue."

Hispanic Republican delegates in San Diego believe Hispanics
will rally to the party in November. "Hispanics want jobs and economic development and the Republican party is the party of self-empowerment," says Maria Guzman Kennedy, a Hispanic delegate from Los Angeles. "Hispanics are all about God, country and family."

But Hispanic attitudes on social issues are more complex than that, according to a recent study by the University of Texas and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. They favor affirmative action, but also a two-year cut-off on welfare benefits. They are conservative on crime, condoning curfews for teenagers and holding parents responsible for the illegal actions of their children. But many believe police corruption is prevalent.

"Hispanics vary greatly in their attitudes because they have not all
come from the same experience," Pachon says. "Some Hispanics felt
immigration was too high. Yet they were tremendously progressive toward those who are already here, feeling that they should be protected by the law and not singled out as scapegoats. Hispanics were in overwhelming consensus that if a child is born here, that child should be considered a U.S. citizen."

Have the Republicans thrown away the Hispanic vote? Probably, says
Art Madrid, Republican mayor of La Mesa, California for the past six years and a registered Republican for more than 30 years. "All they can do is damage control now. They pulled the trigger before taking the gun out of the holster and shot themselves in the foot."

Some Hispanics were heartened by Bob Dole's choice of Jack Kemp as running mate; Kemp was one of the few Republicans to speak out against Prop. 187. But enthusiasm quickly dampened when Kemp, on the ticket for less than a week, changed his position, saying he now supports denying public education to the children of illegal immigrants and backs the new California ballot initiative to repeal affirmative action programs.

"Kemp was one of the most outspoken critics of Proposition 187," says Madrid. "It is amazing what people do to gain political success."

Disillusioned Republican Hispanics could swing to the Democrats in November, says Padilla, although they haven't shown much more interest in Hispanic concerns than the Republicans. "Much
will depend on what happens at the Democratic convention and their position on immigration." Clinton has said he would veto any legislation equivalent to Prop. 187.

"For all the talk about family values, anti-immigration legislation
is going to effect families and that is one thing many ethnic groups will not tolerate," Britto says. "Don't forget, you don't have to scratch very far in the backgrounds of many people in this country, before you find an immigrant."

Quote of the day


"You're watching a metamorphosis. I would be a fool to put my feet down in a position where I can't accommodate metamorphoses."

-- Jack Kemp, explaining his changing stands on affirmative action, immigration and other issues. (From "In New Role, Kemp Fights With His Past Over Ideology," in Thursday's
New York Times)

By Divina Infusino

Divina Infusino has written about Hispanic issues and culture for The New York Times Syndicate and The San Diego Union.

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