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GOP Latinos Face Questions Over Immigrant Pasts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is
forced to research and clarify her late grandfather's immigration
status. Marco Rubio, Florida's GOP Senator, is accused of
embellishing his family's immigrant story. A Republican
congressional candidate in California puts on his website that he
is the great-grandson of an illegal immigrant.

As more Latino Republicans seek and win elected office, their
families' backgrounds are becoming subject to increased scrutiny
from some Latino activists, a reaction experts say is a result of
Latino Republicans' conservative views on immigration. It's a new
phenomenon that experts say Latino Democrats rarely faced, and
could be a recurring feature in elections as the Republican Party
seeks to recruit more Latino candidates.

"It's a trend and we are seeing more of it," said Alfonso
Aguilar, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Latino
Partnership for Conservative Principles.

For years, most Latino elected officials were largely Democrats,
except in Florida, where Cuban Americans tended to vote Republican.
But recently, a new generation of Latino Republicans has won seats
in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California and even Idaho. Those
politicians have come under fire from some Latino activists for
pushing for laws targeting illegal immigrants and for opposing
efforts for comprehensive immigration reform -- views that are in
line with most Republicans.

And the immigrant advocates are pointing to the GOP Latino
elected leaders' own family histories in an effort to paint them as
hypocrites. Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young
University, said it comes from a long tradition by liberal
activists of portraying Latino Republicans as "vendidos," or
sellouts, since the majority of Latino voters tend to vote
Democratic.

For example, Martinez tried twice in the New Mexico state
legislature to overturn a state law that allows illegal immigrants
to obtain state drivers' licenses. Then earlier this year, various
media outlets reported that a grandfather of Martinez may have been
an illegal immigrant. The reports sparked immigrant advocates to
protests outside the state Capitol with poster-size photos of
Martinez on drivers' licenses.

Martinez, a Republican and the nation's only Latina governor,
ordered her political organization to research her family's
background and found documents that suggested that her grandfather legally entered the country and had various work permits.

The episode drew criticism, even from those who opposed
Martinez' efforts on state driver's licenses. "This has nothing to
do with her views and how she governs," said Michael A. Olivas, an
immigration law professor at the University of Houston who also is
aiding in a lawsuit against a Martinez's administration probe over
the license fight. "I don't think it's fair for people to dig
around in her family's past."

In Florida, Rubio's official Senate website until recently
described his parents as having fled Cuba following Fidel Castro's
takeover. But media organizations reported last month that Rubio's
parents and his maternal grandfather emigrated for economic reasons more than two years before the Cuban Revolution.

Somos Republicans, a group dedicated to increasing Latino
Republican voting numbers, immediately attacked Rubio over the
discrepancy and for holding harsh views on immigration. "We
believe it is time to find out the complete history of his parents'
immigration history," the group said in a statement. "It is also
time for Rubio to be a leader and help Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
fix the broken immigration system."

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an
immigrant advocacy group in Somerville, Mass., said voters need to
know a politician's family background for clues on how they will
respond to people with similar stories. "It's very important to
voters," said Montes.

Montes said most Latino and immigrant voters don't simply view
Latino Republicans as "vendidos" but rather as politican leaders
who don't share their views. "I don't care if someone is Latina or
not," said Montes. "I care if they believe in the same things I
do, and if their policies will affect the immigrant community."

Garcia said the current tension also is a result of a new breed
of Latino Republicans finally winning high profile seats after
years of being largely ignored or dismissed. Garcia said there have
always been Hispanic Republicans, through their numbers have been typically small and they have often faced heat from the largely
Democratic Latino population.

In New Mexico, for example, the colorful lawman and lawyer
Elfego Baca helped establish the Republican Party just after New
Mexico became a state in 1912 and actively tried recruit the
state's mutigenerational Latino population to join the party. Baca
won a number of local offices, including district attorney, but
lost bids for Congress and various statewide offices.

In Texas, civil rights activist Felix Tijerina, a
Mexican-American Houston restaurateur and former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in the 1950s, remained committed to Republican Party despite a backlash from fellow activists who disagreed with his laissez faire, pro-business views. One Texas civil rights leader, John J. Herrera, called Tijerina "a white man's Mexican" for his support of Republican
Dwight D. Eisenhower for president over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

"The difference now is that these new Latino Republicans, like
Martinez and Rubio, are better prepared and are being groomed as
national figures," said Garcia. "Meanwhile, the Democrats are
falling behind. They have no equivalent and they aren't giving
Latinos the same opportunity."

Garcia said there's also a new factor -- the millions of new
independent Latino evangelicals who could be potential GOP voters.
This population is new and unpredictable, he said.

Still, some Latino Republicans want to use the new attention
around them in the party to change what they say is damaging
rhetoric around immigration. Tony Carlos, who is seeking the GOP
nomination for California's 3rd Congressional District, is running
on a platform to push comprehensive immigration reform and believes if other Republicans follow, more Latinos will vote with the GOP.

On his campaign website Carlos says his great-grandfather came
to Arizona from Mexico "without papers." Carlos said it's all
about showing that his family is part of an ongoing American story
and that political leaders need to honestly attack today's
problems.

"I'm putting my family history out there. And once Latino
voters hear that I support immigration reform, I find that they are
open to other issues that appeal to conservatives," said Carlos.
"My argument is that they are just as conservative. They are just
in the wrong party."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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