Conservative Latinos embrace California GOP's move to soften tone on immigration

Mario Guerra, city councilman from Downey, Calif., talks at a Latino town hall meeting during the California Republican Party Fall Convention dinner in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.
Mario Guerra, city councilman from Downey, Calif., talks at a Latino town hall meeting during the California Republican Party Fall Convention dinner in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.
Chris Carlson/AP

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Former Downey mayor Mario Guerra considers himself a fiscal conservative. But on immigration, he takes a less hardline view than many of his colleagues.

He’s an immigrant, having arrived with his parents from Cuba when he was a boy. He’s Catholic and sides with the church on social justice issues.

And though he’s a Republican, he does not have anything particularly nice to say about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“I have two hash tags that I use a lot these days," he said, laughing. "#StopHillary, and #AnybodyButDonald."

This is one reason why Guerra is thrilled that the California Republican Party voted this weekend to amend language related to immigration in its platform.

Those changes included the addition of a statement that says Republicans "hold diverse views" on "what to do with the millions of people who are currently here illegally." The California Republican party removed an older statement that read "allowing illegal immigrants to remain in California undermines respect for the law." 

Guerra, who ran for state Senate as a Republican last year, attended the party convention in Anaheim over the weekend. He became state party Treasurer this year, but said he didn't want to be part of a platform he and others considered "needlessly offensive."

The changes, even if subtle, "are sending a clear message that we as a California Republican party are not anti-immigrant, we're not anti-Latino. I’m Latino, and I'm an immigrant."

Insiders say the changes were in the works long before GOP presidential candidate Trump set the national tone this summer, with comments about unauthorized immigrants from Mexico that set off a heated national discussion on immigration.

"They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," Trump said in the controversial speech.

Sacramento Republican strategist Mike Madrid said this kind of rhetoric simply turns Latinos off — including those who lean right. And because the rhetoric takes center stage, he said, it makes it difficult for the GOP to reach these potential voters on other issues.

"The frustrating part is that it doesn't allow allow you to talk about why you're in the party, and what it is that you're fighting for," Madrid said.

In recent years, Republican political influence has dwindled in California, especially among Latinos. And the state's Democratic party recently helped cement that edge: Come next year, both the state Senate and Assembly will be Latino-led.

While Latino Democrats in California far outnumber Republicans, Madrid sees hope: His consulting firm, GrassrootsLab, has tallied more than 670,000 Latino-registered Republicans in the state.

"As long as it takes to hit rock bottom, there’s still hope once you do," he said. "And we have."

Madrid said the state GOP’s move is at least a step in the right direction.

“California Republicans are finally realizing that after a very long, torturous era, that tone does matter," he said.