Latino religious leader Rodriguez courts the left, right for immigration reform

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, Jr. discusses the factors that influence whether evangelical Hispanic voters align with Democrats or Republicans.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez wants immigration reform, and believes building bridges across political divides is how to win it.

As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he has made himself at home with secular progressives and right-wing evangelicals, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Rodriguez, 40, describes the 16 million Latino evangelicals he represents as a mix of "Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. -- with a little salsa tossed in." He sees himself that way, too.

Like most Latino evangelicals, his political alliances are not cemented. As he and several thousand others from his group prepare to descend on Washington Sunday, his message is this: Stand in the way of an overhaul of immigration policy and we will oppose you -- Democrat or Republican. Because the way to win, Samuels believes, is to press when pressing is necessary.

The marchers, who will include evangelicals arriving in church vans and buses from, by Rodriguez's count, 17 states, will demand that President Obama keep his campaign promise to make it possible for many of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to become citizens. They are to meet on the National Mall, hold an interfaith prayer service with 5,000 religious leaders, and protest alongside Hispanic Catholics and a diverse group of what organizers say will be tens of thousands of immigration activists from across the country.

"If not the Obama administration, with a Democratic Congress, then who?" Rodriguez asked. "If not now -- then when?"

Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. population; evangelicals are the fastest-growing part of the Hispanic religious community. And Rodriguez, head of the NHCLC for a decade, has been watching those two trends as they merge to form a potent swing vote. The biggest test of the community's power comes now, Rodriguez says, as they press Obama and Congress to overhaul immigration law during the next few months.

On the political spectrum, he places himself somewhere between white evangelicals, two-thirds of whom vote Republican, and black churchgoers, two-thirds of whom vote Democratic.

"The brown comes along and says, 'Why can't we have both?' " Rodriguez said. He strongly opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, and he cares about reducing poverty and improving the education and justice systems.

It is from that central position that Hispanic voters, and more precisely Hispanic evangelicals such as himself, have become one of the factions that help sway critical elections. In 1996, about 66 percent of Latino Protestants voted for Bill Clinton. In 2004, 63 percent went for George W. Bush. In 2008, Obama won 57 percent of their support.

Bipartisan outreach

For the past decade, Rodriguez has made connections across political lines by seeking common ground. It began when Bush's team invited him to the White House and later asked him to join Karl Rove's weekly strategy calls. Then Rodriguez started getting calls from congressional leaders, both Republicans and Democrats. Last year, he prayed for Obama at a private service along with Bishop T.D. Jakes and mega-church pastor Joel Hunter.

"No one knows how to label me," Rodriguez said with a smile.

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