Hispanic Evangelicals Urge Trump to Go Beyond His Wall

The Trump campaign meets privately with Hispanic evangelical leaders.

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Photographer: Steve Sands/Getty Images

After the Dallas ambush led Donald Trump to cancel his Florida events on Friday, several members of his campaign met privately with Hispanic evangelical leaders in Miami.

The talks represented an intensification of efforts by the campaign to repair ties with the group, which have been strained since he referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” on the first day of his candidacy.

"A complete disappointment," Mark Gonzales, executive director of the Hispanic Action Network, said of the rhetoric against Latinos. He spoke to Bloomberg Politics after attending the meeting on Friday at Trump Doral Miami golf course. "But after several meetings in the past few weeks, we believe he’s going to correct course—and we’re giving him latitude to correct course."

Whether the presumptive Republican nominee will be able to begin to win over the crucial voting bloc, and tap its grassroots network, depends on his ability to offer more specifics about his immigration plan. He also needs to communicate the new details in a way that doesn't alienate his base of conservative voters or turn off Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing constituency.

Beyond the Wall

"We get it -- he wants to build a wall. Our problem is what is he going to do beyond the border? That's just one piece of the immigration debate," said Gonzales, whose group originally supported Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican. "If he wants to motivate millions of us to vote for him, it's time to shift the tone beyond just building a wall."

Before the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Trump was scheduled to meet with the Hispanic evangelical leaders at Versailles, the famous Cuban restaurant in Miami's Little Havana district, before delivering a speech on economic opportunity. 

Instead, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort teleconferenced in for today's session while Karen Giorno, the campaign's Florida director, and Jennifer Sevilla Korn, Republican National Committee's deputy political director, attended in person. The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to comment for this article.

Gonzales and Pastor Frank Amedia, a Trump surrogate and televangelist based in Ohio who helped organize the meeting, said that Hispanic evangelicals agree with Trump on deporting undocumented immigrants with severe felony criminal records and bolstering border security through building a wall.

"But we also want to encourage people to come out of the shadows," Amedia said. "We want a policy that is both legal and compassionate. My indication is that the Trump campaign is listening to us."

Behind the scenes, Amedia has pushed for several weeks to unite fellow leaders for the Miami talks, working with Trump's second eldest son Eric, 32, and the campaign's senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.

Challenge for Republicans

A Pew Research poll this week found presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump with Hispanic voters by a 66 percent to 24 percent. Obama beat 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanics by a 71 percent to 27 percent margin.

Following Romney's loss, GOP officials offered an "autopsy" report about how to expand the Republican Party. One of their conclusions was to make direct appeals to Hispanics.

Republicans have typically gone after Hispanic evangelical voters, despite the overall Hispanic voting bloc tending to skew Democratic in the two most recent presidential campaigns.

Like evangelicals as a whole, Hispanic evangelicals oppose the Supreme Court's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion. They also support laws that would make it harder to revoke religious institutions' non-profit statuses.

Gonzales said that a "generous" benchmark for Trump winning the presidency would mean garnering between 30 and 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. "And most pollsters say he'd need 40 percent," Gonzales said.

"I remember when Mitt Romney brought up 'self-deportation' back in the 2012 election," Gonzales said. "My wife was sitting next to me and I told her, 'We just lost the election.'"

Rough Start

During the primary season, some of the Hispanic evangelical leaders attending the meeting said they had a hard time accepting Trump's brash rhetoric regarding undocumented immigrants.

"Too extreme," said Mario Bramnick, president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition in Cooper City, Florida.

"Uninspiring and off-putting," said Ramiro Peña, a pastor at Christ the King Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.

As the primary field winnowed and Trump ascended to become the presumptive nominee, they ultimately came around to Trump's candidacy. All of the leaders at the meeting are backing Trump's candidacy -- even if begrudgingly.

"Look, there were times during the primary when I put my hands up to the sky and I said, 'Lord, am I really hearing from you that I should support this guy?" Amedia said. "But in my head and in my heart -- the unequivocal answer I got from the Lord was a resounding, 'Yes.'"

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