ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - 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.
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-law overhaul.
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 driver's licenses. Then earlier this year, various media outlets reported that a grandfather of Martinez's may have been an illegal immigrant. The reports sparked immigrant advocates to protests outside the state Capitol with poster-size photos of Martinez on driver's 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's 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 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 after 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-N.J.) fix the broken immigration system."
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy group in Somerville, Mass., said voters need to know politicians' family backgrounds 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 political leaders who don't share their views. "I don't care if someone is Latina or not," Montes said. "I care if they believe in the same things I do, and if their policies will affect the immigrant community."