White House political strategist Karl Rove touted "shared values" of faith and family and reiterated President Bush's support of broad immigration reform in a Los Angeles address Tuesday to one of the nation's largest Latino civil rights organizations.
In a lunchtime talk at the National Council of La Raza's annual conference, the Republican advisor outlined Bush's plan for stronger border security, workplace enforcement, a guest worker program and earned legalization for undocumented immigrants.
"He understands immigration is a positive force in this country
But he drew scattered boos when he highlighted Bush's recent approval of $1.9 billion in funding for more border security, including deployment of National Guard troops, and was disrupted twice by hecklers who unfurled antiwar and anti-Bush banners.
Rove, who shared his own family story of Norwegian immigrants, also told the crowd that assimilating by learning English was critical to both national unity and boosting the pay and career potential of immigrants. "English binds us together as Americans and enables us to share our common life," he said.
Speaking after Rove, New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson outlined his own immigration plan -- which was strikingly similar to Bush's. Unlike Rove, however, he was not booed when he promoted tougher border security to crack down not only on illegal immigrants, he said, but also on drugs and violence.
Rove's appearance comes as both parties try to tap the fast-growing Latino electorate, which is becoming more independent. About 40% of Latinos voted for Bush in the 2004 election, compared with 56% for Democratic candidate John F. Kerry.
In California, Democratic registration among Latinos has fallen from 69% in 1996 to 48% today. Latino voters declining to state a party preference increased from 9% to 25% during that period while Republican registrants grew from 19% to 23%, according to the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Cecilia Munoz, La Raza vice president, said she was "encouraged" by Rove's remarks in support of broad immigration reform at a time when a wing of his party is pushing what she sees as a punitive approach focused on cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Congress' two chambers are holding dueling summer hearings, with the House promoting an enforcement approach and the Senate backing a broader bill that includes border security, legalization for undocumented immigrants and more family and worker visas.
Munoz warned that Republicans would jeopardize their support among Latinos for generations if they failed to act on immigration reform.
"The image of the Republican Party in the Latino community is going to be set for the next generation by what happens in this debate," she said.
"The Latino vote is up for grabs, but it won't be up for grabs if the Republican Party continues to paint itself as a party of xenophobia."
Immigration politics also surfaced in California's gubernatorial race Tuesday, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger renewing his support for the civilian Minuteman border patrols at a campaign stop to showcase his Latino supporters in a Mexican restaurant in Lynwood.
"I support any time that a civilian wants to go and do the job that law enforcement cannot do," Schwarzenegger said in response to a question.
"I'm for that. I'm not for any harassment. I'm not for anyone carrying weapons. I'm not for any of that.
"But I have, for instance, in my house -- for years and years and years -- I've hired private security to take care of my house, because I felt that the police could not really cover every single house and protect the children and families."
State Treasurer Phil Angelides, Schwarzenegger's Democratic challenger in the November election, has tried to undercut his support among Latinos by citing the governor's support for the Minuteman group.
Hours after Schwarzenegger's appearance with Latino supporters, the state's highest-ranking Latino Republican, Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, questioned the governor's loyalty to Latinos.
"Our governor cares about one thing only, and that's Arnold Schwarzenegger," Maldonado said in a telephone interview requested by his staff.
Maldonado, who lost the Republican primary for state controller last month, said he was disappointed that the governor declined to support his candidacy.
At Schwarzenegger's request, Maldonado had sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage, a move that irked conservatives in the primary. "I kind of felt like I got left holding the bag," Maldonado said.
The senator also said many Latinos thought Schwarzenegger had shown "a lack of respect" with the Latino community by spending too little time in Mexico. Schwarzenegger has visited Mexico twice as governor and plans to visit again before the election.
"When he needs Latinos, Latinos are always there for him," Maldonado said. "When Latinos need him, the answer's been no."
Arnoldo Torres, a senior Schwarzenegger campaign advisor, called Maldonado's remarks "unfortunate." He said the governor had shown a "very, very clear commitment" to matters of concern to Latinos, including education, public safety and healthcare.
The four-day La Raza conference ended Tuesday with a town hall meeting on how to ease tensions and strengthen relations among Latino, black and Asian American leaders.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson stressed the need to focus on common interests of worker rights, while Stewart Kwoh of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles described his center's efforts to mobilize low-income parents of all races for better education.
John Mack, a former Los Angeles Urban League president who heads the city's Police Commission, criticized African Americans who blame Latino immigrants for taking their jobs, calling such allegations "regrettable, unfortunate and factually incorrect."
"We have to get past the scapegoat mentality," he said.