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Immigration Fuels Hispanic Church Activity

Latino evangelicals have been voting Republican, but may be shifting.

In the packed sanctuary of a Hispanic megachurch, Latino evangelicals are praying for comprehensive immigration reform — and for the political clout to make it happen.

"If we just pray only and leave this place just doing that, it's not going to make the greatest difference, because in this country that God has given us, the United States of America, the way to make our voice heard is at the ballot box," the Rev. Mark Gonzalez of the Hispanic Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform tells the worshippers.

Thousands of miles away, in Chicago, Latino Catholics are also praying for immigration reform — and registering new voters after Mass.

"They want to be part of that process that somehow will determine their lives and their future," said the Rev. Claudio Diaz of the Archdiocese of Chicago. "So it's been like a jolt of energy to really have a group of people be updated, get informed, be organized."

Across the nation, Hispanic Catholic and Protestant churches have become centers of an unprecedented new political activism, fueled in large part by the contentious debate over immigration reform.

"Latinos are a sleeping giant that has been awakened as a result of these discussions, no doubt about that," Edwin Hernandez, research fellow at Notre Dame's Center for the Study of Latino Religion, told the PBS program Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly.

There are more than 42 million Hispanics in America, but most have not been politically active. In 2004, less than half of all eligible Latino voters actually went to the polls. But experts say an energized — and still rapidly growing — Hispanic voting bloc could have a huge national impact.

"Both political parties are understanding that, are hearing and listening carefully because their political futures, to a large extent, will depend upon how these alignments ultimately are figured out," Hernandez said.

Hispanic churches, he said, are making a big impact on those alignments.

"The church is one of those institutions that is owned and operated by the Latino community and so it is also the place where cultural values are transmitted and preserved and enhanced," Hernandez said. "The more you participate actively in a particular community of faith, the more you're likely to absorb and internalize those values and translate that into the public life."

While the majority of American Hispanics are Catholic, evangelical Protestants have been making big inroads in the Hispanic community. Both Latino Catholic and Protestant churches have framed immigration reform as a moral imperative.

The Roman Catholic Church played a major role in organizing the past year's immigration demonstrations in Washington, D.C. With the Nov. 7 elections looming, church leaders have been pushing Latino voter registration and education.

"We cannot tell people to vote for this party or vote for this guy, but we can them, `You've got to go vote,'" said the Rev. Marco Mercado, a founder of Priests for Justice for Immigrants.

Hispanic Protestants are also mobilizing.

In Laredo, an Assemblies of God Church, Iglesia Crisiana Misercordia, is literally on the front lines of the immigration battles — it sits five miles from the border with Mexico.

"Most of our church is composed of immigrants," said the Rev. Gilberto Velez, the church's pastor. "Do I have illegal immigrants? I don't know. I don't know."

Velez said he doesn't check the ID cards of the more than 2,000 worshippers who attend his church every Sunday. If he knows they are illegal, he said, he counsels them to return home. But the church also offers humanitarian aid to undocumented aliens.

He said congregation members with legal status now realize that political decisions often affect their ability to fulfill their mission. "We are motivating them and educating them, you know — you want some rights? You need to vote."

In September, the church hosted a National Immigration Prayer Rally sponsored by a coalition of evangelicals called the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

At the rally, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, conference president, told participants that "immigration is not a conservative or a liberal issue, it's not a Republican or Democratic issue."

"We are involved, the church, because we have a spiritual and a Christian obligation to speak up for those that cannot speak up for themselves," Rodriguez said.

It's unclear which party will benefit from a new Latino political movement. Hernandez, from Notre Dame, said Hispanics don't fit neatly into political categories.

Hispanics, like many immigrants, have traditionally gravitated toward the Democratic Party. But in recent years, the Hispanic vote has been shifting more to the GOP. In 2004, 40 percent of Latinos voted Republican in the presidential election — largely, analysts say, on the strength of Latino evangelicals.

Evangelicals are one of the fastest-growing segments of the Latino electorate. They make up about one-third of all Hispanic voters. And they gave strong support to George W. Bush in the last presidential election:  56 percent of Latino Protestants voted for Bush in 2004, up from 44 percent in 2000.

But Rodriguez said many Latino evangelicals are reconsidering their support for Republicans because they were troubled by some of the GOP rhetoric during the immigration debate.

He said they wonder what the party really stands for: "Is it compassionate conservatism or is it a xenophobic sort of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino party? That's a question that has to be answered."

But Hispanics are also uncomfortable with Democrats, Rodriguez said, because of their support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

"I think the Democratic Party has an opportunity of engaging many Hispanic voters," he said. "To do so, they would have to move a lot more towards the middle."

Related Elsewhere:

Tim Stafford examined the political influence of Latino churches in his profile of Samuel Rodriguez.

More articles on immigration and politics are available from our full coverage areas.

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly has a video version of this story, along with links to many additional resources on the subject.

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