(The Hill) – A press event meant to tout conservative Hispanic support for a hard-line immigration bill instead brought into sharp relief the deep divisions among Latino Republicans on the issue.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and main sponsor of the Securing America’s Future Act, hosted the event Tuesday, inviting conservative Hispanic groups to speak in support of his bill, which would provide protections for so-called Dreamers.
The legislation would also fund President Trump’s border wall, end the diversity visa lottery program, limit family-based visas, create a new, controversial agriculture guest worker program, allow the administration to withhold federal money from sanctuary cities and require employers to use the E-Verify program to check the immigration status of their workers.
Because of those provisions, the bill is unanimously opposed by House Democrats and does not yet have 218 votes from Republicans. Most Hispanic groups oppose it.
The main organizer of Goodlatte’s event, Alfonso Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said even he has misgivings about the bill.
Aguilar and Artemio Muñiz, a Texas Republican who was listed as a participant in the press materials and spoke at the event, said they view support of the legislation as a strategic move.
Aguilar said he’s against the bill’s stated goal of reducing legal immigration by 25 percent, and Muñiz said he wants a special path to citizenship for Dreamers, which Goodlatte’s bill does not provide for.
But Aguilar said he organized the event to specifically support passage of the bill — as opposed to its provisions — in order to keep the legislative ball rolling.
But some of the Hispanic advocates invited to the event were upset that press materials mentioned their names, which they said suggested support for the bill itself. Representatives of 10 conservative Hispanic groups were listed on a release from the House Judiciary Committee.
Five of the eleven invited guests didn’t show up, including Omar Franco of the Latino Coalition, who said he would never have attended an event for legislation he strongly opposes. He said listing his name made it seem like he supports Goodlatte’s legislation.
“I simply RSVP’d to an event and I was shocked and surprised to be put up as a supporter of a bill I haven’t even read,” said Franco, a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.).
“That bill is a sellout to the entire community, we would never support something like that.”
Franco added the bill doesn’t meet any of the Latino Coalition’s three criteria for support: That it’s positive for the country, for the Hispanic community and for small businesses.
The Latino Coalition is among the most influential Hispanic groups that maintain an active relationship with Trump; he was the keynote speaker at the group’s annual summit last week.
Yohana de la Torre, a spokeswoman for The Latino Coalition, said the group hasn’t yet put out an official position on the Goodlatte bill because the full text of the proposal hasn’t been made available to them.
The four other conservative leaders named on the release who did not show up were Rev. Tony Suárez and Rev. Gus Reyes of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Lourdes Aguirre of Eres America, and Danny Vargas, the former chairman of the National Republican Hispanic Assembly.
A second release from the Judiciary Committee, released after the press conference, only included the names of the guests who spoke at the event.
Vargas declined to comment, and Aguirre said she wanted to attend, but couldn’t adjust her travel plans.
Suárez said he originally thought the event was a show of support for “the idea that Congress needs to finally act on immigration reform, and that after 30 years of futility we have to get this fixed.”
“So that was my intention of going but never to endorse a particular piece of legislation, especially that particular piece of legislation,” Suárez said.
Suárez, a conservative evangelical, was Rep. Luis Gutiérrez’s (D-Ill.) guest at the 2014 State of the Union address. Gutiérrez is among the most vocal Democrats on immigration issues.
Mario H. López, head of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy organization, opposes Goodlatte’s bill and was not included as a possible participant.
He said he discussed Goodlatte’s press event with guests listed on the press release, and attributed the decision by some to skip the event as reflecting their opposition to the bill.
“This person described the Goodlatte bill to me as ‘shit,’ ” he said of one person he spoke to.
Suárez said the Goodlatte bill is “playing politics” without the intention of actually arriving at a solution, since it provides fewer immigration benefits than proposals by the White House.
“To me this is just a show. I don’t think it has a legitimate chance of going anywhere,” he said.
But Aguilar said it’s opponents of Goodlatte’s bill, led by Democrats, who are trying to delay congressional action for political gain.
“I criticized Republicans when they didn’t do anything in the House [in 2013]. I think the inverse is happening right now and I’ll continue to say, and I think both sides play politics with this issue, and this time around it’s Democrats,” he said.
At the event, Goodlatte mentioned the guest speakers who weren’t there, but did not suggest their absence might have reflected any misgivings about his bill.
“I especially want to thank the members of the Latino community who are here with me today. There were a few additional that were not able to join us and I’m sure you’ll hear from them separately,” Goodlatte said.
“I want to thank in particular Alfonso Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, for bringing together a broad coalition of conservative Hispanic leaders who support the Securing America’s Future Act,” he added.
Goodlatte’s office declined to comment for this story, but steered questions toward Aguilar, who helped organize the event.
Aguilar said he was clear with those he spoke with that they would be at the event to support Goodlatte’s bill.
“In my e-mail communication it was very clear that they were there to support the passage of the bill. I talked with everyone — each one of them — and I said you don’t have to agree with every single aspect of the bill,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar shared an email with The Hill that he had sent Sunday to the invited participants.
In it, he wrote that participants would attend the event in support of the bill’s passage, and were expected to speak in favor.
Both Aguilar and Franco say that in a later phone call, Franco declined to attend the event because he’s a registered lobbyist.
But Franco says he was blindsided by “an opt-out scenario rather than an opt-in.”
Franco added that he had to do some damage control with Capitol Hill sources because the release announcing the event implied his support for Goodlatte’s bill.
Suárez said he’d look into asking the Judiciary Committee to remove his name from the original release, which is still online. He said he wasn’t clear on the fact that speakers would be expected to endorse the bill.
“I don’t feel it was misleading, but I was not aware that my name would be associated with endorsing the bill, because I have not endorsed the bill,” he said.
Aguilar blamed the no-shows and criticism of the handling of the event on pressure from Hispanic groups opposed to the legislation.
“I suspect that they got calls from Latino leaders like I did. I mean, we were getting calls. The others were getting calls to cancel or not participate,” Aguilar said.
“And you know this is part of the Latino shaming, if you don’t agree with the narrative from the Hispanic liberal elite,” he added.
Franco said his opposition to the bill is based on principle — he supports comprehensive immigration reform and an immediate path to citizenship for Dreamers. He added that, as a Republican, he avoids speaking out in opposition to other Republican proposals.
“We would not necessarily be on the record as opposing it, but if you do something this stupid as to put our names into an email saying we’re supporting a bill we’ve not even read, then that’s on you,” he said.
Still, Aguilar said the leaders who showed are just a fraction of conservative Hispanics who support his legislative strategy.
“We could have had more leaders if we had enough time, but the whole point is that you do have leaders who support passage of the Goodlatte bill,” Aguilar said. “Some don’t and that’s fine, but there’s not a monolithic position in the Latino community.”