Two Saturdays ago, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump convened a group of Hispanic leaders in New York and left some with the impression he was interested in moderating the hardline immigration views that powered his campaign throughout the primaries.
"He didn’t commit to anything, but he brought up the plight of the 11 million" people already in the country illegally, recalled Jacob Monty, a Houston immigration lawyer who was there. "He acknowledged that most of them were hardworking and law-abiding.”
Since then, it has been a "rollercoaster ride," in the words of one prominent Texas activist. Trump and his surrogates have sent a flurry of mixed signals about his immigration positions, creating widespread confusion that the nominee is now expected to (try to) clear up in a speech Wednesday in Arizona.
On late Tuesday night, Trump added even more drama to the following day, announcing he will travel Wednesday to Mexico to meet with its president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Nieto had invited Trump, who is expected to fit in the Mexican visit right before his Arizona speech.
Perhaps no audience will be watching more closely than Latino Republicans in Texas, who have long held outsize influence in presidential politics despite the state's usual irrelevance in the electoral landscape. This time around, they appear exceptionally conflicted, confronted with a nominee many did not support in the primaries due to his inflammatory beliefs but who is now actively courting them.
"It's sort of a strange time," said Artemio "Temo" Muniz, chairman of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans. "You have people going all over the place. ... The Trump campaign has, in a sense, divided us, not as friends — we’re all friends — but we all have specific roles to play."
While Muniz is not currently backing Trump, he said of his pro-Trump peers: "I respect them, we need them, because if Trump does win, you can’t have a vacuum. You need people on the inside to influence. And so far, they have influenced him."
There have been those who have gone all in to get Trump elected — including Monty, who was already raising money for Trump in Houston before he joined the National Hispanic Advisory Council that met with the nominee earlier this month. Other Hispanic Republicans in Texas, meanwhile, are like Muniz, who has at times vocally opposed Trump but wants to get to a place where he can be supportive — particularly when it comes to immigration. And then there are some similar to Lionel Sosa, a veteran operative from San Antonio who is so repulsed by Trump he has left the GOP altogether this election cycle.
Although Texas is not usually competitive in presidential elections, national Republicans have long turned to the state's Hispanic community for its wealth of knowledge on border security and immigration issues, as well as its political talent and financial support. There are six Texans on Trump's National Hispanic Advisory Council — more than from any other state.
Among them is Rick Figueroa, a former candidate for Republican National Committeeman from Texas and a longtime finance executive from Brenham. He gave a fiery introduction of Trump at a rally last week in Austin, recalling an interaction the two had at the council's meeting with Trump in New York.
"I told him, I said, 'You know, I was told about eight years ago that this guy came to me — si se puede — and I haven't seen anything from him,'" Figueroa said, invoking the campaign slogan President Barack Obama used in 2008. "And he looked at me and he said, 'That's true.' And so you know what I told him? 'What the hell we got to lose, right?'"
Of course, not every Hispanic Republican in Texas is as enthusiastic about Trump as Figueroa is. The latest reminder came Monday, when the campaign of Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson announced it had hired Sosa, a seasoned ad maker, to help with Latino outreach. Sosa joins Juan Hernandez, another longtime operative from Texas, who is already helping Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, connect with Hispanic voters.
"I have to live with integrity and today, supporting Trump, that's not honorable," the Fort Worth-based Hernandez said in an interview last week, the morning after Trump swept through Austin. "There is no integrity in that. I don't want to be remembered like in the '60s and '70s of being one of those guys with the hose in his hand, with water against the African-Americans marching. I have a grandson now. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I supported Trump."
Among the most prominent Hispanic GOP elected officials in Texas, Trump has few, if any, enthusiastic supporters. The state's highest-ranking Hispanic Republican, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, has steadfastly withheld his support from Trump since he left the presidential race in May amid a bloody battle with the eventual nominee. Land Commissioner George P. Bush did not utter a supportive word about Trump until earlier this month, when he urged party activists to help elect the nominee — and even then, Bush did not exactly praise the man who savaged his dad in the primaries.
(Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, the only Hispanic Republican elected statewide beside Bush, declined to comment Tuesday on Trump, citing the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from making endorsements.)
The only Hispanic Republican in the Texas congressional delegation, Rep. Bill Flores of Bryan, also initially declined to formally back Trump, saying in June that he does not "endorse people that bash judges based on his ethnic heritage." But Flores ultimately came around the following month at the Republican National Convention, when he said his concerns were eased by Trump's selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate.
In the Texas Legislature, Trump does not seem to have a deep reservoir of support among Latino GOP members. Multiple attempts were unsuccessful Tuesday to find out whether four of the six Hispanic Republicans in the House — there are none in the Senate — support Trump.
State Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas has been by far the most vocal Trump critic of the half dozen, declaring the billionaire the "death of the Republican Party" as soon as Cruz dropped out in May, paving the way for Trump's nomination. A spokeswoman said Tuesday that Villalba still opposes Trump.
State Rep. John Lujan of San Antonio said Tuesday he supports "Trump and his team," emphasizing that while Trump was not his first choice in the presidential race — Cruz was — he is increasingly encouraged by the people with which the nominee is surrounding himself. Lujan also cited control of the U.S. Supreme Court as a reason he is backing Trump.
"He’s moving more toward the center, and that’s reassuring, but it is tough," said Lujan, who faces a competitive race in November to win a full term in House District 118. "There’s no doubt about it: You have the Trump factor in these elections, and that’s tough for Hispanic Republicans."
In any case, all eyes will fall on Trump on Wednesday evening in Phoenix, where he has promised to address immigration in a hotly anticipated speech. One sticking point for Trump critics, including those whom the campaign has unsuccessfully sought to recruit, like Muniz: whether Trump will back away at all from his pledge, made most prominently during the primary season, to deport every person in the country against the law.
Monty says he never viewed Trump's immigration plan as the "most Draconian or mean-spirited," summing it up as, "The bad guys got to go and the good ones can come back." Asked whether he believes Trump is "softening" his immigration views — a word the nominee floated himself during his trip to Austin — Monty said he sees Trump's rhetoric developing into "more of an explanation of the rest of the story on immigration."
Regardless, Monty predicted Hispanic Republicans in Texas ultimately coalescing behind Trump, even those who have stepped outside the GOP in protest.
"I think there’s a little bit of a fracture, but I think people are going to realize that voting for Gary Johnson is saying yes to Hillary Clinton," Monty said. "In the ballot box, I think Latino Republicans are going to do the right thing."
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