When Hector Caballero came to this country, he had $200 to his name.
Caballero, 45, is now a neurologist, practicing medicine from an office in Northport.
"This is the only country where you can do something like that," said Caballero, who said he left Cuba at age 26 and lived in other countries before coming to the United States.
Caballero is a rock-ribbed Republican who says he voted for Mitt Romney and "would do it again and again." But he thinks his party screwed up the fine points of the immigration issue.
"You cannot give citizenship to people who came here illegally," he said. "But for those who were one or two years old and had no choice, you have to give them a pathway to citizenship. That's how we lost the argument."
Caballero ran for a seat as a delegate to the Republican National Convention earlier this year -- and he lost. But now that GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost the election, due in part to the loss of the Hispanic vote, party leaders have developed a keener interest in hearing his voice.
"We're going to be reaching out to Hispanics in Alabama, in terms of honing our message to them," said Bill Armistead, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.
The Nov. 6 election delivered a punishing message to immigration hard-liners within the GOP.
In the years before the election, several states, from Arizona to Georgia, passed immigration laws that allowed police to ask people for proof of citizenship on routine traffic stops, and giving them the power to detain people who couldn't prove they were here legally. Alabama's law, by most accounts, was the toughest of them all, demanding proof of citizenship for all sorts of government transactions, from getting an electrician's license to buying a car tag.
But on Election Day, the immigration issue proved to be an albatross around the party's neck. According to polls from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, 75 percent of Latino voters nationwide chose Obama. Democrats won wide majorities among every segment of the Hispanic population except for Cuban-Americans, who favored Romney by 10 points. Exit polls by various news organizations showed similar numbers -- and they showed Republicans losing ground significantly with Hispanic voters between 2008 and 2012.
That shift had GOP leaders nationwide signaling a possible pivot on immigration, with congressional leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, saying they're open to "comprehensive" immigration reform, a phrase that usually refers to a more Democratic approach that would allow immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
When playing on the home field, Alabama politicians have little to fear from the loss of the Latino vote. Hispanics make up only 4 percent of the state's population, according to the Census.
But what happens in Alabama can affect the party's chances nationwide -- and not just for one election cycle.
The Hispanic population is growing faster than any other demographic group, said William Stewart, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alabama.
"The Republicans are asking for continual defeat if they don't change their approach," he said.
The U.S. Hispanic population grew from 35 million in 2000 to 50 million in 2010, according to the Census Bureau -- surpassing African Americans as the nation's largest minority group. About half of those people live in Florida, California and Texas, states that are major electoral-vote prizes.
Those numbers have Democrats feeling optimistic, despite the trouncing the party took in Alabama.
"It's hard to win elections when you're demonizing the fastest-growing part of the population," said Bradley Davidson, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party.
Stewart said the Alabama immigration law didn't by itself sink the Republicans this year. But it was a significant part of the GOP's problem. Just as the controversy over Arizona's immigration law was beginning to wane, he said, Alabama stepped up with an even more stringent bill.
Stewart said he didn't expect Alabama Republicans to suddenly turn away from the immigration law. But he did expect the GOP to let the bill go to a relatively quiet death in the federal court system.
"The most realistic solution is to stop talking in Hispanic terms and let the federal courts get the state out of this jam," he said.
Armistead, the state GOP chairman, said party leaders were "having an ongoing dialogue with folks in Montgomery about the immigration law."
He wouldn't elaborate, except to say that there may be "tweaks" that could still be made.
But Gov. Robert Bentley's representatives have repeatedly signaled that future changes in the law are unlikely.
"The bottom line of Alabama's immigration law is that if you live and work in Alabama, you should do so legally, and we don't expect that to change," said Bentley spokesman Jeremy King, in an e-mailed statement.
The Star's attempts Thursday and Friday to reach Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, and Rep. Micky Hammon, R- Decatur, for comment were not successful. The immigration law, also known as the Beason-Hammon Act, is named after both men, who shepherded it through the Legislature.
Armistead said the Republican message of economic opportunity is a natural fit for both immigrants and the larger Hispanic community. What the party needs, he said, is to do a better job of getting its message out.
"We have some active Hispanics in the party," he said. "I hope we'll have more visibility with them in the future."
But there's no Alabama equivalent of Marco Rubio, the conservative Cuban-American U.S. senator from Florida. Asked whether the state GOP had any Latino members in elected office, Armistead said he couldn't think of one.
Amanda Bosquez, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, said there appeared to be no Hispanic elected officials in the state, in either party, as of January. NALEO does a yearly count; there are about 5,800 people of Latino ancestry in elected office nationwide.
Armistead said there was at least one Hispanic delegate from Alabama at this year's Republican convention in Tampa. He said that delegate, a man from Shelby County, is someone he'd like to recruit for a future outreach effort.
'Huge federal bureaucracy'
Marcelo Munoz said he got a call from Armistead Thursday night, and will meet with him next week to talk about recruiting new voters.
But if the party wants Munoz, they'll have to take him for what he is -- a Ron Paul man.
Munoz was the statewide chair of Paul's Alabama campaign. He's also a member of the Shelby County Republican Executive Committee, and until recently was vice-chairman. He went to the Tampa convention as an alternate delegate.
He's no fan of illegal immigration, saying that uncontrolled immigration is a health hazard, among other things.
"I will not eat at a Mexican restaurant, because that's where newly arrived people go to work," he said.
Still, Munoz has mixed feelings about Alabama's immigration law, largely because it expands the use of E-Verify, a federal system for determining the citizenship status of job applicants.
"Sometimes people throw the baby out with the bath water," he said. "Parts of the law are good, but E-Verify is a huge federal bureaucracy."
Munoz, 45, works as a software engineer in Birmingham. He was 5 years old when his family first left Chile, during the presidency of Salvador Allende. He's an Air Force and Army veteran and a board member for a local Tea Party group.
But like many Ron Paul supporters, he's critical of overseas military intervention, the ban on medical marijuana and anything else that smacks of big government.
Munoz said the military torture scandals of the last decade are enough to turn off a lot of Latino voters.
"A lot of them come from countries where this stuff happens," he said. "When they see the United States acting like a bully, they don't like it."
Munoz believes the Ron Paul approach is the future of the party. At rallies for the candidate, he said, he was usually the oldest person in the room.
"You've got to look to the young people," he said. "That's where the future is."
Munoz worked in statewide campaigns for the GOP this year, but he said he didn't get involved in the Romney effort. Asked whether he voted for Romney in the general election, he didn't offer a clear answer.
"The ballot in this country is secret," he said.
Young and innocent
Munoz is one of just three people with seemingly Hispanic surnames who ran for seats in Alabama's GOP convention delegation this year. All three ran as Ron Paul delegates.
Caballero, the Northport doctor, was another of those names. He's quick to point out that he disagrees with Ron Paul on some issues. But he sees some contradictions in the traditional Republican rhetoric.
"It's very hard to explain why we were in Iraq," he said. "We put two wars on a credit card."
Caballero said small-government conservatism appeals to immigrants who've lived in Communist regimes. He has little patience for people who circumvent the legal immigration process, saying he's not opposed to militarizing the border if that's what it takes.
But he says the Republicans spoiled the issue for themselves when they came down against efforts to give young immigrants -- people brought here as children -- a path to citizenship.
"We have to understand that people who come here from a young age are innocent," he said.
Even if Ron Paul is the magnet to attract more Latinos to the party, Republican leaders may not be willing or able to embrace him.
Paul garnered only 5 percent of the vote in the 2012 Alabama primary. Rick Santorum, a social conservative who appealed largely to evangelicals, won the race with 35 percent of the vote. Newt Gingrich, who became House speaker after a 1994 Republican sweep decided largely by white male voters, came in second with 29 percent of the vote. And Mitt Romney, establishment favorite and eventual nominee, came in a close third, but with a 24-point lead over Paul.
"Alabama Republicans have had pretty good success, at the state level, with their current approach," said Stewart, the political scientist." "I don't expect they'll change it much."
Adding to Republicans' challenges is the fact that the party exerts only partial control over the messages its members send.
In the 2010 election, Alabama's anti-immigrant sentiment went viral. In campaign ads, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim James ran an ad in which he said "This is Alabama, we speak English." Agriculture commissioner candidate Dale Peterson appeared on screen toting a gun and saying that "illegals bust in by the thousands."
Neither man won the party's nomination, but their ads still live on YouTube.
Armistead acknowledged that there's only so much the party leadership can do about the message that emerges in 2014.
"We don't get involved in the primaries," he said.
It's a problem that affects both parties. When Pelham lawyer Harry Lyon emerged this spring as the only candidate to qualify for the Democratic nominee for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, party leaders were powerless to stop him from running -- even though he'd once said the state should execute illegal immigrants, among other controversial comments.
But after Lyon won the nomination, party leaders disqualified him.
"If a person is acting like a bigot, we can rule them out," Davidson said. "We've done it in the recent past."
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OCTOBER 31, 2014
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