Here's the Hispanic Evangelical Pastor Leading His Flock to Jeb Bush

The Reverend Samuel Rodriguez says immigration isn't the only issue that matters to conservative Latino voters.

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference

Carlos Campos/National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is in Houston on Wednesday to deliver the keynote address to the annual meeting of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a group started by the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez and one that counts 40,200 member churches across the country. Rodriguez, 45, is the pastor at New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, Calif., and has spent more than a decade prodding Republican lawmakers in Congress to provide a path to citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

In an interview ahead of the annual meeting, Rodriguez described himself as profoundly disappointed in the path Republican leaders recently have taken in Washington. Yet he remains hopeful in Bush's candidacy.

Bloomberg: When I think of evangelical voters and nominating a Republican president, I think of Iowa, not Houston. Can Hispanic evangelicals make a difference in picking the Republican presidential contest?

Rodriguez: Hispanic evangelicals aren't necessarily caucus voters in Iowa, but if you do your due diligence with Pew, you'll see we vote, on average, more than other segments of the Hispanic electorate. Even the Cuban American community is shifting now from a generational perspective. There are about 16 million Hispanic evangelicals in the U.S. and it is a very staunch socially conservative constituency.

Bloomberg: Just 27 percent of Hispanics voted for the Republican nominee in 2012. How staunchly conservative are we talking here?

Rodriguez: Even with Romney, Hispanic evangelicals were very faithful to the conservative cause. Even with the self-deportation rhetoric, all that was taking place on immigration, Hispanic evangelicals said, 'We hate this stuff on immigration, yet the Republican Party truly resonates with us a bit more on traditional values than the Democratic Party.' That offers a great opportunity in 2016, if Republicans can get it right.

Bloomberg: So if not in Iowa, where are these evangelicals voting?

Rodriguez: The hotspots would be, in order, Texas, California and Florida. Nevada is one of our fastest growing chapters in the country, as is Colorado.

Bloomberg: And how is the immigration issue playing out now among Hispanic evangelicals?

Rodriguez: Republicans are alienating Latino Christian conservatives. The Republican Party has to figure out if short-term viability trumps long-term sustainability. This time around, in 2016, I would say you will not hear talk about self-deportation. Period. I would say—if I were a betting man, which I’m not—I would predict that the Republican establishment will make sure that immigration is contextualized in a way of, 'We are pro-immigration, we want to secure our borders. But we likewise want to secure our values, values that include compassion and a Judeo-Christian value system that compels us to address the issue of immigrants.' I think you’ll hear that balance and nuance. And if not, they’re going to end up with 27 percent again.

Bloomberg: That's quite a prediction, considering House Republicans essentially voted last year to deport children of undocumented workers, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is now suggesting limits on legal immigration. 

Rodriguez: I can tell you were I see hope. I see hope in the candidacy of Governor Jeb Bush. I think Governor Bush gets it. He’s not pro-amnesty, but he knows we have to find a solution to the immigration issue in America. I have a great respect, an admiration toward Governor Bush for his exemplary leadership in Florida. His multi-ethnic outreach in Florida was really amazing, and you saw the results in his Latino support base. He was able to transcend the stereotypical Republican motif. We've communicated and worked together over the years, but I have yet to physically shake his hand. I look forward to having him keynote our convention. 

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez prays at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference on Tuesday in Houston.
Reverend Samuel Rodriguez prays at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference on Tuesday in Houston.
Carlos Campos/National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference

Bloomberg: Anyone else? 

Rodriguez: I know that Senator Marco Rubio has retracted his support of the Senate immigration bill. I was actually standing to the right of Senator Rubio when they went over the points in that Senate press conference. I was there. Literally, I was standing there. I was actually nodding off because I took the red eye, but that’s a story for another day. But I do believe in his heart of hearts that Senator Rubio knows we have to find a solution. Right now what he’s advocating for is a border solution, and then we'll talk about immigration reform. I do believe that if Senator Rubio is the presidential nominee for the Republican Party, we’ll take some positive steps toward immigration reform. Bush and Rubio, and even Governor Mike Huckabee, I mention these because they have a strong Judeo-Christian ethos.

And there are candidates who are less attractive to those of us. And I say this respectfully, because they’re all wonderful gentlemen, but the candidates who are less attractive to issues of immigration would be Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Scott Walker. These two candidates right now would be at the bottom of the scale when it comes to attracting Hispanic evangelicals because of their stance on immigration.

Bloomberg: What are the Judeo-Christian values when it comes to immigration?

Rodriguez: We have a biblical mandate to address the immigrants in our community. And it’s not by spitting at them when they’re on a bus. These are human beings created in the image of God. Leviticus 19 is explicit: Treat the immigrants in your community as one of your own. Do not forget that you were once immigrants. Likewise, Matthew 24 says here's how the Lord measures your true Christian faith. He'll know by your actions, including whether or not you welcome the immigrant, welcome the stranger. It's right there. It means we need to solve this in a way that reconciles both the law and our Christian compassion.

Bloomberg: That's going to sound like amnesty to a lot of Republican primary voters.

Rodriguez: We are not, as a group, in favor of amnesty. We’re in favor of protecting our border, securing our border. And I argue we have the technology. If we can read a license plate in Afghanistan miles away through a satellite, I think we can see 100 people with backpacks crossing the Rio Grande. The fact that we haven't done it isn’t a matter of resource allocation. It’s a matter of sheer will.

We need to deport the murders and gangbangers that are here to hurt our communities. But the vast majority of people here in an undocumented manner did not cross the Rio Grande with backpacks. They came in here with legal visas and overstayed their visas. That bureaucracy has to be addressed. I have them in my church. I don’t deny that. These are great people who work hard. They work hard, and it requires us to do more than deport someone who has been here for 20 years, whose kids were born here.

Bloomberg: But some Republicans say even that's amnesty.

Rodriguez: That’s not amnesty. Amnesty is, 'You’re here? Hallelujah, you’re here! No problem.  You’re automatically a citizen.' That’s not what I’m asking for. If you've been here for 20 years, and you're not dependent on welfare, and you're kids were born here, and you’ve been paying taxes, then go to the back of the line—the very back of the line. Admit you came here illegally, learn English, and get to the back of the line. But we won’t deport you as long as you keep working, and government dependency is not an option. 

Bloomberg: How would you describe the direction the Republican Party has taken on immigration in the last few years?

Rodriguez: The word disappointment wouldn’t capture my sentiment. It’s beyond disappointment. With humility, if Republicans continue on this path this time around, silence will not be an option on my end. Republicans must cross the Jordan of immigration reform in order to step into the promised land of the Latino electorate. Almost half of this constituency voted for George W. Bush in 2004. This is not the African American vote that is locked in 90 percent Democrat. This is the quintessential, independent electorate of the first half of the 21st century. There is no more fluid electorate than the Latino electorate. The Latino electorate is up for grabs.

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