Hispanic Republicans look to raise profile on immigration

Published: Thursday, Jan. 13 2011 5:32 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The first-of-its-kind Utah Compact is getting some company by spawning similar efforts for collaborative resolution to immigration issues in other states.

A relatively new group of Hispanic Republicans called Somos Republicans is spearheading alternative legislation in states debating get-tough Arizona-style immigration bills.

" 'Somos' means 'we,'" said Antonella Packard, the group's northwest director, who is based in Utah. "Well you know, we are Republicans."

The fight presents a delicate divide for the GOP.

Last year, Arizona passed SB1070, considered the broadest, strictest anti-illegal immigration law in decades, requiring local police with "reasonable suspicion" to attempt to identify a person's immigration status during a routine traffic stop or arrest.

Similar proposals, led by Republicans, popped up in dozens of other states, including Utah.

Rep. Steve Sandstrom, R-Orem, characterized his bill this way last fall: "I've looked for the more compassionate end of it. But at the same time this bill is very hard hitting. It's a hard-hitting, tough bill."

Somos Republicans was first formed in Arizona. Now, the group has chapters established or forming in a dozen states including Utah.

"We are very conservative," said Packard. "We dislike the rhetoric that is being pretty much promulgated by some of the elements of the GOP toward Latino voters, also toward undocumented immigrants."

Packard said the Utah chapter has roughly 30 members.

The group endorses the Utah Compact, developed by a coalition of business, religious and community leaders last fall.

It calls for a federal, not state by state solution, and for local police to focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of federal law.

Somos Republicans are now pushing a national Compact with America and compacts in Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Florida.

"We've been reaching out to national, state and local groups to solidify broad coalitions in support of these compacts, and expect this process to move quickly," said Bob Quasius, the group's midwest director. The group expects its membership to grow following plans for birthright citizenship bills in 14 states, Quasius said.

"This, I think, is a really potentially important issue for Republicans," said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.

The issue is particularly volatile for the GOP because if puts two elements of the party on a collision course at a time when the Latino population and its electoral power are growing.

"This could split the Republican Party because it's the kind of issue where there are just very different views," Burbank said.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republican leaders launched a new effort Thursday to reach out to Hispanic voters, called the Hispanic Leadership Network.

Hispanic Republican candidates won some prominent posts in November's elections: a Senate seat in Florida, as well as governorships in New Mexico and Nevada. But nationally in 2010, Hispanics voted for Democrats by a 2-1 margin.

President George W. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, a number that has dropped for the GOP since.

Immigration tops the list of hot issues coming up this legislative session.

Which path conservatives take on Utah's Capitol Hill will be telling.

e-mail: jdaley@desnews.com

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