The Rev. Luis Cortes will deliver the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inaugural luncheon in Washington, D.C., Monday afternoon.
Monday morning, he just may offer a private prayer for immigration reform.
In Philadelphia, Cortes is best known for creating the group Esperanza, “hope” in Spanish, which runs a charter school, a junior college and a community economic development center.
Nationally, he is known for leading a 500-member network of Latino faith-based groups.
And, ever since Bill Clinton was in office, Cortes has been known at the White House for his efforts to help bring about a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Cortes’ office on Fifth Street in Hunting Park is crowded with photos of him with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. But they represent much more than photo ops. The founder and CEO of Esperanza has been promoting immigration reform at the White House since Clinton was president.
Now, he says, there is no time to waste.
“I believe it’s a short-term opportunity. Next January at this time might be a little too late because we are coming into the midterm cycle and then it’s politics as usual and there will be more gridlock then – there might be more gridlock then.
“The question is, does the President take that opportunity or not?” he said.
His fear, says Cortes, is that other national issues, mainly gun control and, of course, the country’s fiscal health will once again trump immigration. He’s echoes the hope of other advocates that Obama will listen to their message, since Latinos turned out so strongly for the president.
Immigration a constant, coalescing concern
He credits that to a miscalculation by GOP candidate Mitt Romney. Since Latino voters are, by definition, citizens, Cortes says the Republican candidate and his advisers probably thought they would not care as much about immigration as the rest of the Latino population.
“His strategy didn’t take into account that the Hispanic community is related. So even though I am Puerto Rican and Puerto Ricans have been citizen by birth since 1900, well, many Puerto Ricans marry other Latinos that are not,” he said. “As a result, almost every family has someone who has an immigration issue. Most Americans don’t know that it can take 10 to 15 years to fix an immigration status.”
Between 10 million and 12 million people who came to this country illegally are living in the shadows, in an immigration limbo, he says. They have built families here and contribute to the economy and are not planning to leave.
“And we need to find a way to address these people and their children, many American children, and have them become part, a legalized part, of our nation. Which doesn’t necessarily mean we give people citizenship and reward people with citizenship for breaking the law and coming into the country,” he says. “But it does mean that we begin a dialogue, get them out from under the shadows. Only the people who are committing crimes are not going to come out of the shadows.”
Immigration, Cortes insists, permeates everything that has to do with being a Latino. That’s on top of the general concerns that are common to all Americans: employment, education, housing and access to health care.
Neither political party a comfortable fit
Religion is also an important component of Latino life and organization. Esperanza is described as the country’s largest Hispanic faith-based evangelical network.
“Latino evangelicals are more liberal than the traditional Anglo evangelical — which is what people see when the word evangelical is said. We are for immigration reform, we are for public education, we are not opposed to taxation for the general public good. So, in that sense, we are more traditional Democrats or liberals.
“In another sense, we tend to be more conservative on family and social issues,” he says.
Latinos in general, he says — whether Catholic or, like Cortes, an evangelical Baptist — often don’t fit neatly into either major party.
“My history has been that both parties have litmus tests and we never pass them. So we end up kind of being a hybrid and moving. And you can see that by the fact that Bill Clinton won the Hispanic evangelical vote, George Bush won it and we’ve now gone with Barack Obama twice,” says Cortes.
For two years, Cortes has been leading a two-day National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and Conference in Washington. Obama has attended before, and Cortes is hoping that he will be there again this week after the inauguration ceremonies, to continue the conversation on comprehensive immigration reform.
So what happens now? It depends on how successfully Cortes and other advocates keep the issue on the “front burner.” That makes having the direct access to the president and his staff all the more vital. How will Cortes know if the message got through?
Times of silent acknowledgment
“When something is said to a president and they get uptight about it or they challenge it, you know they are listening. And you could see what they do after — these are private conversations — and you see what they do after.
“And when you get to see them again sometimes they’ll wink or just smile like ‘I did it; I didn’t hear you say anything in public thanking me for that, but I did do it.’ And I’ve had those opportunities with men who have served in the White House,” he says.
Asked if he remembered one instance, he laughed and responded.
“I can, but I won’t say.”