Calif. Republican Latinos urge party to show empathy toward illegal immigrants

California Republicans held what they billed as their
California Republicans held what they billed as their "first ever" Latino Town Hall over the weekend.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Republicans at this weekend’s state GOP convention in Los Angeles wrestled with the question of how to attract more Latinos to the party. At times, it seemed like they were talking past each other about an issue that could determine the survival of the Grand Old Party in California.

At a Latino Town Hall, billed as the party’s first ever, California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Baccaro said he thinks Latinos mostly vote Democrat because they’re just not getting the GOP’s message.

“Unfortunately the Latino community throughout the state gets most of their information about the Republican Party from the Democrats and certain portions of the media,” Del Baccaro said.

Downey City Councilman Mario Guerra, one of the few Latino Republican elected officials in the state, said the party’s problems go beyond its message. “We become anti-Latino sometimes,” Guerra said.

He chastised party leaders, including last year's gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, who opposed providing in-state tuition for undocumented college students.

“That 20-year-old student whose parents brought him here illegally. Why shouldn’t they have in-state tuition?” he said. “Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Political analysts say Latinos increasingly are disenchanted with Republicans, thanks to tough anti-illegal immigration rhetoric from Republicans around the country and Arizona's new law allowing local police to arrest illegal immigrants, a job normally left to the federal government.

But President Barack Obama's approval ratings have dropped with Latinos, just like other groups. And Republicans see an opening. Many have placed their hope with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who comes from a border state and avoids much of the immigration rhetoric of his fellow Republicans.

Guerra stopped short of urging the party to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But he said he, for one, understood why Latinos skirt the law to live in the United States.

“I would sneak over to help my family and to raise my family here. It’s a great country,” Guerra said. “So we have to have the empathy part.”

That’s a rare statement in a Republican Party in which the loudest voices often belong to Tea Party activists.

Spanish-language TV network Univision taped the event. The host of its popular public affairs program “Voz y Voto” Santiago Lucero moderated it.