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Backing immigrants from the right

Backing immigrants from the right
© Greg Nash

As a pro-immigration reform conservative, Mario H. Lopez may seem an outsider in today’s political arena. 

But the head of the Hispanic Leadership Fund (HLF), a conservative advocacy organization, has made a reputation of fighting from inside the GOP against hard-liner groups that wield enormous influence with the Trump administration.

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“The goal of the HLF is not necessarily specifically to take on these groups,” Lopez told The Hill in a recent interview. But, he says, “they’re an affront to every principle we believe in as conservatives and [we] stand in diametrical opposition to that.”

Lopez knows that Hispanics regularly rate the economy as their primary concern in polls, but immigration reform is often viewed as a litmus test for their political support.

HLF combines its pro-immigrant positions with pro-business, low-tax and low-regulation economic policies, as well as school choice and anti-abortion rights stances that match up with the Republican establishment.

Lopez first experienced a nativist agenda up close when, as a young Republican, he witnessed former California Gov. Pete Wilson’s (R) successful 1994 reelection campaign.

That election was a turning point for Latino advocacy, the pro-immigrant movement and California politics in general. Wilson’s heated anti-immigrant rhetoric put him back in the governor’s mansion, but it activated a progressive grass-roots movement that eventually turned the nation’s biggest state into a deep-blue bastion.

Lopez felt the direct aftermath of Wilson as a staffer for the gubernatorial campaign of then-state Attorney General Dan Lungren (R), who in 1998 lost to Democrat Gray Davis while taking only 17 percent of the Hispanic vote.

“An abysmal number,” said Lopez.

Despite feeling alienated by Wilson’s tactics, Lopez stayed true to his Republican roots and championed the conservative pro-immigration ideas he felt were set up by presidents including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

“In a state like California, with even just a cursory understanding of demographic trends — we’ve seen it play out. With the exception of [former Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger, you’ve got nothing since then, and even [he’s] questionable, at least as a conservative,” said Lopez.

Lopez continued his career in politics as a staffer for former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), and in 2003 he became the second executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, a group of Republicans that had recently split from the ostensibly bipartisan Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“As a true conservative who believes in immigration reform, Mario Lopez is a much-needed voice in the Hispanic community,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartHouse retirement sets off scramble for coveted chairmanship White House kicks DACA fight back to Congress Dems fear ‘Stephen Miller ambush’ on immigration MORE (R-Fla.), the Hispanic Conference’s current chairman.

It was during immigration policy negotiations under George W. Bush that Lopez noticed the rise of reductionist influence on House Republicans.

That was Lopez’s introduction to the organizations experts refer to as the Tanton group — the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Numbers USA — all dedicated to reducing legal and illegal immigration, and all founded directly or indirectly by Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton.

“It really started around the Bush immigration push after his reelection in ’05 and leading into ’06. All of a sudden we started seeing [former Colorado GOP Rep.] Tom Tancredo quoting FAIR and CIS on the House floor in one-minute speeches.

“I’m hearing these incredibly offensive and inaccurate things about the community, about immigration, and I’m hearing them this cite this group — who the hell is he citing? This isn’t a group I’d ever heard of, so I started digging around,” said Lopez.

Lopez says the groups used “deception” to make inroads with Republicans after Democrats took a sharp pro-immigrant swing in the 1990s.

“They’re leading Republicans and conservatives over a political cliff,” said Lopez. “And not being from the conservative movement, they don’t care that they’re doing that.”

Oddly, that’s one point that Lopez and his rivals in the Tanton group agree upon.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an association that uses economic arguments to make its case against immigration, insists that the reductionist movement is neither left nor right, conservative nor liberal.

“Mario is always trying to make people think that NumbersUSA has positions on abortion, euthanasia, forced population control, etc. We have never taken a position or dealt with any of those issues. They are positions that Mario wishes we had, but they are nothing more than straw men that he has constructed himself,” said Beck.

Still, Tanton made, both privately and publicly, arguments that many have interpreted as eugenicist. The groups he founded, including NumbersUSA, have become more independent and influential over the years, distancing themselves from the more controversial aspects of their origins.

Lopez says that’s a political ploy to make their reductionist views more attractive.

“They can’t go in and talk about their real agenda with Republican offices, because they’ll get — hopefully — they’ll get a door slammed in their face,” he said.

Lopez says he’s concerned that nativist rhetoric might have a similar effect to Wilson’s reelection campaign but at a national level, yielding immediate results for Republicans but putting the GOP on the losing side of long-term electoral success.

“The demographic train has left the station,” he said. “I always say Republicans are going to end up understanding [Hispanic] outreach, it’s just a question of when.”

If Republicans don’t figure it out soon, Lopez said, “it is going to be the beginning of a 50-year jaunt in the wilderness.”

That’s why HLF has pledged support to pro-immigration Republicans including Reps. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanVulnerable GOP incumbent returns Meehan donations GOP lawmaker proposes bill to grant residency for Salvadoran immigrants Gold Star father attacked by Trump steps up role in Dem primaries MORE (Colo.) and Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloHispanic Dems seek vote to condemn GOP lawmaker for demanding arrests of 'Dreamers' Live coverage: Trump delivers his first State of the Union GOP lawmaker asks Capitol Police to arrest 'Dreamers' at State of the Union MORE (Fla.).

While the HLF is a relatively small organization, it’s had success with its hand-picked candidates.

“If Hispanic grass-roots organizations don’t find ways to reach across the aisle and work together on all the issues affecting Hispanic Americans, we’ll never make progress,” Curbelo said. “Mario and HLF recognize that Hispanics come from all across the political spectrum, and their engagement ensures conservative Hispanic Americans are participating in conversations on critical issues like immigration reform and economic opportunity.”