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Immigration a Thorny Issue for GOP's Abbott

The Texas GOP's hardline stance on immigration in its party platform has drawn criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. And it comes as GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott tries to court Hispanic voters.

Governor candidate Greg Abbott at the Republican Convention in Fort Worth June 6, 2014.

In the wake of the GOP's approval of a platform that includes a hardline stance on immigration, Attorney General Greg Abbott finds himself at the top of the ticket for a party whose members are deeply divided over the subject and under fire from opponents who say the Republicans' position is offensive to Hispanic Texans.

And it all comes during an election cycle in which Hispanic Texans are seen as an especially critical voting bloc that Abbott has worked to woo.

"It effectively puts him in an awkward position," said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, because the attorney general does not want to risk alienating Hispanic voters or contradicting the official party stance.

Last week, the Republican party adopted a political platform that no longer endorses a provisional visa program for immigrants and calls for ending in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and for prohibiting “sanctuary cities” that do not enforce immigration laws.

Abbott has largely been silent on the issue. Representatives for the Abbott campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and they have not responded to previous inquiries about his position on the immigration plank of the platform.

In the days since the Texas GOP adopted its hardline stance on immigration, Democrats have blasted not only the party but Abbott, who has stayed quiet on the platform. 

“This disrespectful platform is clearly taking its cues from the man at the top of the ticket: Greg Abbott,” said Zac Petkanas, spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis' campaign.

For months, Abbott has touted a personal connection to the Hispanic community, noting that his wife, Cecilia, could become the first Hispanic first lady of Texas. His campaign has a Spanish-language website. And while addressing the Republican Party of Texas at its convention on Friday, a day before the controversial immigration platform plank was approved, he praised the state’s “blending of cultures,” sprinkling in some Spanish as he did so.

Juntos somos una familia,” he said. “Together, we are one family.”

The Republican Party of Texas’ platform is not binding for Abbott. Still, the Davis campaign has been quick to accuse the Republican attorney general of being responsible for it, referencing comments he has made comparing corruption in the Rio Grande Valley to the “third world,” and his call for reforms to the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities.

Democrats have been ramping up their efforts to mobilize Hispanic voters, because they believe they are critical both to Davis' gubernatorial hopes and to the party's aim to turn Texas blue.

Some Hispanic Republicans have said the party's new immigration plank is at odds with Abbott's outreach efforts — he has said he wants to receive at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

And some Republicans have criticized the GOP’s new immigration platform, saying it presents an obstacle to Republicans who hope for a more inclusive party. George Antuna, co-founder of Hispanic Republicans of Texas, called the language “disheartening," adding that the damage done to his party's appeal to Hispanics would be "a challenge to patchwork."

Republicans are hardly a monolith when it comes to immigration, said state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. He said the controversy over the party's immigration language “shows that we as the GOP are still very diverse in how we look at those issues.”

Plenty of Hispanic Republicans support the new language, because “it is not a race issue,” said George Rodriguez, former president of the San Antonio Tea Party. The language, he said, “is not discriminatory in any form or fashion.”

Democrats disagree. State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said the GOP's immigration platform was a “problematic stance in regard to the future of Texas” and accused Abbott of “playing politics” to court the Hispanic vote.

“We have heard nothing from Greg Abbott,” she said. “Silence is really acceptance in this case.”

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Republican Party Of Texas Wendy Davis