ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is forced to research and clarify her late grandfather's immigration status. Marco Rubio, Florida's GOP Senator, is accused of embellishing his family's immigrant story. A Republican congressional candidate in California puts on his website that he is the great-grandson of an illegal immigrant.
As more Latino Republicans seek and win elected office, their families' backgrounds are becoming subject to increased scrutiny from some Latino activists, a reaction experts say is a result of Latino Republicans' conservative views on immigration. It's a new phenomenon that experts say Latino Democrats rarely faced, and could be a recurring feature in elections as the Republican Party seeks to recruit more Latino candidates.
"It's a trend and we are seeing more of it," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
For years, most Latino elected officials were largely Democrats, except in Florida, where Cuban Americans tended to vote Republican. But recently, a new generation of Latino Republicans has won seats in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California and even Idaho. Those politicians have come under fire from some Latino activists for pushing for laws targeting illegal immigrants and for opposing efforts for comprehensive immigration reform — views that are in line with most Republicans.
And the immigrant advocates are pointing to the GOP Latino elected leaders' own family histories in an effort to paint them as hypocrites. Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University, said it comes from a long tradition by liberal activists of portraying Latino Republicans as "vendidos," or sellouts, since the majority of Latino voters tend to vote Democratic.
For example, Martinez tried twice in the New Mexico state legislature to overturn a state law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain state drivers' licenses. Then earlier this year, various media outlets reported that a grandfather of Martinez may have been an illegal immigrant. The reports sparked immigrant advocates to protests outside the state Capitol with poster-size photos of Martinez on drivers' licenses.
Martinez, a Republican and the nation's only Latina governor, ordered her political organization to research her family's background and found documents that suggested that her grandfather legally entered the country and had various work permits.
The episode drew criticism, even from those who opposed Martinez' efforts on state driver's licenses. "This has nothing to do with her views and how she governs," said Michael A. Olivas, an immigration law professor at the University of Houston who also is aiding in a lawsuit against a Martinez's administration probe over the license fight. "I don't think it's fair for people to dig around in her family's past."
In Florida, Rubio's official Senate website until recently described his parents as having fled Cuba following Fidel Castro's takeover. But media organizations reported last month that Rubio's parents and his maternal grandfather emigrated for economic reasons more than two years before the Cuban Revolution.
Somos Republicans, a group dedicated to increasing Latino Republican voting numbers, immediately attacked Rubio over the discrepancy and for holding harsh views on immigration. "We believe it is time to find out the complete history of his parents' immigration history," the group said in a statement. "It is also time for Rubio to be a leader and help Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) fix the broken immigration system."
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy group in Somerville, Mass., said voters need to know a politician's family background for clues on how they will respond to people with similar stories. "It's very important to voters," said Montes.
Montes said most Latino and immigrant voters don't simply view Latino Republicans as "vendidos" but rather as politician leaders who don't share their views. "I don't care if someone is Latina or not," said Montes. "I care if they believe in the same things I do, and if their policies will affect the immigrant community."
Garcia said the current tension also is a result of a new breed of Latino Republicans finally winning high profile seats after years of being largely ignored or dismissed. Garcia said there have always been Hispanic Republicans, through their numbers have been typically small and they have often faced heat from the largely Democratic Latino population.
In New Mexico, for example, the colorful lawman and lawyer Elfego Baca helped establish the Republican Party just after New Mexico became a state in 1912 and actively tried recruit the state's multigenerational Latino population to join the party. Baca won a number of local offices, including district attorney, but lost bids for Congress and various statewide offices.
In Texas, civil rights activist Felix Tijerina, a Mexican-American Houston restaurateur and former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in the 1950s, remained committed to Republican Party despite a backlash from fellow activists who disagreed with his laissez faire, pro-business views. One Texas civil rights leader, John J. Herrera, called Tijerina "a white man's Mexican" for his support of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower for president over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.
"The difference now is that these new Latino Republicans, like Martinez and Rubio, are better prepared and are being groomed as national figures," said Garcia. "Meanwhile, the Democrats are falling behind. They have no equivalent and they aren't giving Latinos the same opportunity."
Garcia said there's also a new factor — the millions of new independent Latino evangelicals who could be potential GOP voters. This population is new and unpredictable, he said.
Still, some Latino Republicans want to use the new attention around them in the party to change what they say is damaging rhetoric around immigration. Tony Carlos, who is seeking the GOP nomination for California's 3rd Congressional District, is running on a platform to push comprehensive immigration reform and believes if other Republicans follow, more Latinos will vote with the GOP.
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On his campaign website Carlos says his great-grandfather came to Arizona from Mexico "without papers." Carlos said it's all about showing that his family is part of an ongoing American story and that political leaders need to honestly attack today's problems.
"I'm putting my family history out there. And once Latino voters hear that I support immigration reform, I find that they are open to other issues that appeal to conservatives," said Carlos. "My argument is that they are just as conservative. They are just in the wrong party."