Land Bill May Help GOP Reach Hispanic Voters
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 1998; Page A23
It may have seemed odd for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to appear at a news conference on a Mexican holiday to denounce a "historic injustice" committed against Hispanic families in the American Southwest 150 years ago.
But after many GOP missteps, Gingrich's gesture earlier this month may have turned a small corner in Republican efforts to mend fences with the nation's 6.6 million Latino voters before the November elections.
Today, the House Resources Committee will consider the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty Land Claims Act, creating a commission to assess northern New Mexico families' claims to lands they believe they lost unfairly in the aftermath of the Mexican War that ended in 1848.
The claims dispute has festered for 150 years among New Mexico's original European colonists, who call themselves Hispanos, but last year they found a champion in freshman Rep. Bill Redmond (R-N.M.), who wrote the land claims act and got Gingrich to endorse it.
It is impossible to say whether Gingrich's gesture will help GOP fortunes among Hispanic Americans nationally, but it has won support from National Council of La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre, a frequent Gingrich opponent who is also a descendant of land claimants in Texas.
The Republicans "looked at the political dynamics," Yzaguirre said in an interview. "To win elections you need big states like California, Texas and Florida, and you need some Hispanics to win those states."
The bill will almost certainly boost the hopes of Redmond, who is running hard for reelection in a heavily Hispanic and Democratic district. In an election in which a swing of only 11 seats will give the Democrats control of the House, every marginal district is a battleground.
Environmental activist Sam Hitt opposes the bill but acknowledged that it could "tip the balance" for Redmond, and "as a political move by the Republican Party . . . it's a tremendously damaging blow to the Democrats."
If so, it is the first that the GOP has inflicted since Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 and began passing laws restricting immigration and immigrant benefits and voicing opposition to affirmative action and minimum-wage increases. In 1996, President Clinton outpolled Republican Robert J. Dole among Hispanics by more than 50 points.
That same year, then-Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) began discussing the land claims with the New Mexico Land Grant Forum, a group of colonists' descendants who trace their ownership of the disputed territories to land grants from the Spanish crown.
Richardson introduced a bill creating a commission to study the claims in early 1997, and then left Congress to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Redmond, 44, an Independent Christian minister, won a three-way special election to succeed him, promising that land claims legislation would be the first bill he would introduce in Congress.
He said he used the Richardson bill "as an outline" and filled in the details during two meetings with the Forum.
The Forum's Georgia Roybal said "no one knows" exactly how many grants there are or how many claimants there will be. The Forum has compiled a list of 316 claims in New Mexico alone, some based on grants made early in the 17th century.
Roybal said the grants were given to groups of families. Each family had a private plot on which to build a house and raise crops, she added, and "there was also common land that everyone used for grazing and wood gathering."
The land passed from Spanish to Mexican sovereignty after the wars for independence, then changed hands again after the U.S.-Mexican war through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, in which Mexico sold about half its territory including present-day California, Nevada and Utah, most of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming to the United States for $15 million.
According to the Forum and virtually no one in New Mexico disputes the story the federal government and profiteers swindled the landowners out of thousands of acres, taking advantage of the Hispanos' inability to speak English and unfamiliarity with the English common law system practiced in the United States.
Some of the land is still held by the colonists' descendants, while other pieces are owned by unrelated private citizens. The bulk, however, is held by the government as federal property, including national forests.
For this reason, opposition to the bill comes primarily from environmentalists like Hitt, president of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians. Hitt said the bill is designed "to sell off public lands" anathema to many environmental groups. "The end result will be a degraded watershed."
Hitt said national groups have been "reluctant to speak out" because the dispute is "a very emotional issue."
Melanie Griffin, director of land protection programs for the Sierra Club, acknowledged "we have no official position," but that "we have a lot of questions."
Redmond accused environmentalists of "having the arrogant view that the environment can be preserved only if there's a central Marxist government."
In all, said Yzaguirre, the dispute has given Republicans something they have not had in four years an issue that resonates with Hispanic voters and conforms to conservative principles. "Yes, it's good for them," Yzaguirre said. "We're talking about the return of public lands to private hands, a smaller government presence, and no money out of the federal Treasury."
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