The Call of Samuel
"That was Harry Reid," says Samuel Rodriguez, folding his flip phone as he leaves a strip-mall chain restaurant. It is an April day, and Congress is warring over immigration. "They are really courting us. You should have heard the way Nancy Pelosi was talking."
Rodriguez is a young 36 with longish hair and a neat black goatee. Fast-talking, articulate, utterly bilingual, he exudes confidence. Rodriguez is a "brilliant thinker and an authentic man of God," according to National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Ted Haggard. "He is the Karl Rove of Hispanic-Anglo evangelical strategy."
Consulting with the Senate minority leader, however, is new territory. With immigration topping the news, Rodriguez has become a go-to guy. He started the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) six years ago to be a voice for Hispanic evangelicals. Suddenly, everybody in Washington—media and politicians—wants to talk to him.
Rodriguez should be happy with his new prominence, but he doesn't look entirely happy. "Immigration puts us at odds with our white evangelical brothers," he says. He has spent years building alliances, and now he is unsure whether they will last. Rodriguez knows what happened with civil rights. To this day, many African American Christians distrust white evangelicals even though they share views on school prayer, abortion, and gay marriage. Hispanic evangelicals might similarly resist alliances with those they perceive as blind to their core concerns. That is the last thing Samuel Rodriguez wants.
At a Washington press conference in April, Rodriguez and a coalition of Christian leaders issued a statement in favor of "comprehensive immigration reform"—bolstering border security while providing a path to citizenship for some immigrants living in the United States. Many evangelical groups went missing, though Focus on the Family and the NAE (through Richard Cizik, the association's Washington representative) came to give moral support. Instead, Ted Kennedy showed up.
"We need to know from white evangelical leaders," Rodriguez was quoted saying in The Washington Post, "why did they not support comprehensive immigration reform, why they came down in favor exclusively of enforcement without any mention of the compassionate side, without any mention of the Christian moral imperatives?
"So down the road, when the white evangelical community calls us and says, 'We want to partner with you on marriage, we want to partner on family issues,' my first question will be: 'Where were you when 12 million of our brothers and sisters were about to be deported and 12 million families disenfranchised?'"
Rodriguez would far prefer to have evangelical politicians, rather than Kennedy, line up behind him for photo-ops. It pains him to seem to threaten retaliation. But he's only offering a dose of reality. Immigration is a family issue for Hispanics. That illegal immigrant is, for them, beloved Uncle Carlos, a hard-working family man and deacon at the church. It's hard to build alliances with people who want to put Uncle Carlos in jail.
Rodriguez emphasizes that he's not defending violations of the law. He is all for border control and immigration enforcement. He feels, however, that the argument has become anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. "I'm very disappointed. We need dialogue on why white evangelicals are so threatened by people who are so fundamentally in accord with their values."