How one Koch-backed group is selling immigration reform to the tea party

Daniel Garza had spoken for 30 minutes at a May meeting of the Scottsdale Tea Party about conservative outreach to Hispanics when he paused and focused on a set of notes in front of him.

“This is where I’m going to be a little bit more scripted, if you don’t mind,” Garza, the Texas-based director of a conservative Hispanic group called the LIBRE Initiative, told the gathering of about 50 tea party members before making the case for reforming U.S. immigration laws.

“Let me start by saying, I talked about opportunity,” he said. “I do not fear waves of poor immigrants coming to America. I fear a government, a government that would hinder opportunities for those poor. Our nation was built — was made wealthy, was made prosperous and powerful — by immigrants who were poor, who came here and had the opportunity to prosper, to create wealth, to earn and to risk, and to make life better for their children.”

Garza outlined a point-by-point case in favor of providing legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to a skeptical group of Arizona tea party conservatives.

A conservative advocacy group founded in 2011, LIBRE is funded in part by grants from Freedom Partners and TC4 Trust, two of the many funding arms of the multimillion dollar network of donors overseen by libertarian industrialists Charles and David Koch. With a staff of 35, LIBRE is active in eight states and plans to expand into two more by the end of the year. The group has already spent more than a million dollars on English and Spanish-language ad buys targeting Democrats on Obamacare in Arizona, Texas and Florida.

For the most part, LIBRE makes Hispanic outreach its primary mission. As part of this effort, LIBRE mimics longstanding practices from groups traditionally associated with the American left. At events across the country, LIBRE has provided social services along with its small-government message: LIBRE partnered with H&R Block during tax season to help people prepare their tax forms; later this year it will offer free GED classes and subsidize the cost of the test for those seeking a degree; it offers scholarships at two U.S. colleges. Perhaps most controversially, LIBRE recently hosted a workshop in Las Vegas, Nev., to help people — including undocumented immigrants — receive state driver authorization cards, which they are legally permitted to register for there.

“For decades now, while we’ve been absent, while we haven’t engaged with the community, the left has,” Garza told the Scottsdale Tea Party. “It’s important that we gain the trust of the community so they know that we’re partners in helping them develop, prosper, to assimilate, to contribute to the American economy.”

As with other groups that meld social services and political activism, LIBRE collects data from participants who sign up as members of the organization. LIBRE then shares the data it collects with a group called Themis, which serves as the Koch network’s data-collection agency. Other Koch-backed groups, such as Generation Opportunity, which conducts outreach to young people, do the same.

The speech Garza delivered to the tea party group last month is one he gives often when speaking to groups with members who oppose immigration reform as part of LIBRE turning its gaze inward to the conservative movement in hopes of repairing the relationship with Hispanics. In recent months, Garza has addressed the Conservative Leadership Conference in Raleigh, N.C., and the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., where he granted an interview with the Tea Party News Network. In January he addressed the House Republican Conference during its annual retreat in Cambridge, Md. In March he traveled to Atlanta to speak before the Georgia Public Policy Foundation Dinner. The next month he was in Las Vegas addressing members of the clergy at a pastors’ briefing, before flying to Milwaukee for a panel on education reform with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a possible future presidential candidate. In June, Garza will speak at policy summits with Christian pastors and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott in their home states. He also appears regularly on right-wing radio, where he debates Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

In his speech in Arizona — a border state that has served as ground zero for the immigration reform debate — Garza urged tea partyers to support “immigration reform that’s going to improve security on the borders, but simultaneously … address the folks that are here so they can get on the business of assimilating.”

He argued that supporting an immigration overhaul would be one of the only ways conservatives could begin making inroads with Hispanics, pointing to a Univision poll showing that a majority of Hispanics will be closed off to politicians who are antagonistic to immigration, even if they agree with their views on policy.

“I know a lot of people say, ‘Well, they violated the law! They’re criminals,’” Garza said. “What I can tell you is this: In the 1920s we passed a law called the Prohibition Act. Millions of otherwise law abiding Americans violated federal law — federal law — for want of a beer. Were they bad people? No. It was a bad law. Today millions of these folks have violated federal law for want of opportunity — of opportunity. Are they bad people? No. It’s a bad law. We have to get on with the business of legalizing the relationship with the employer and the employee. That’s what we have to do. It’s critical that we do that. Why criminalize a rational activity where someone is seeking to improve their lot in life, and seeking to improve the conditions of their family, by selling labor?”

After his speech in Scottsdale, Garza took questions from the audience for nearly 30 minutes. Responses to his speech were mixed, but almost every question concerned immigration.

The first came from a man concerned about securing the U.S.-Mexico border; he asked if Garza believed it should be guarded by U.S. military.

“There’s no question that we need to do more to secure the border,” Garza said. “But I think by absorbing those folks that are industrious and hardworking and want to contribute to the American economy, we can then get to the priority issues which is the folks that would do harm to America.”

“But the border is so open right now,” the man responded, according to the video.

“That’s because we don’t have a law that allows us to absorb folks that we can quantify and qualify with work visas and these kinds of things and keep tabs on them. We don’t know who’s here. … We don’t have a system that allows us to process them.

“Militarizing the border, that’s too severe for me,” he added. “I think there’s other ways we can do it.”

Later, a woman who identified herself as “Shirley,” said she had been robbed by immigrants who she believed had “destroyed” the state of California.

“I fled California because the Hispanics, the illegals, destroyed California. They closed hospitals in California. They destroyed the fabric of that state,” she said. “You’ve exaggerated and made them appear wonderful and just coming here to work. I’ve been robbed twice. It was by an illegal in California. … The border has to be closed. … The illegals do not want to be Americans. They do not want to assimilate.”

“Look,” Garza said, “with all due respect, we have differences with how we see the immigrant community. But I think I’ve been honest. I did say that there is a certain sector of all immigrants — of all immigrant groups, regardless of race, regardless of nationality — that are here to exploit the American system. To exploit our social welfare issues. … But look, the vast majority of immigrants, the vast majority of immigrants, are here to work hard to contribute to our economy. And I know we have that difference, but we’ll agree to disagree.

“You have to ask yourself that question,” he went on to say, “Would you do the same in their position?”

“No!” the woman said from her seat.

Garza, now far from the script he had in front of him, became animated.

“It’s a tough life to live in the shadows and not be able to assimilate and to have your children treated, be treated as others. To be treated as almost like their aspirations are not equal to other American kids even though they were born in America as well. That’s a difficult life to live as a parent and for the children,” Garza, whose own parents were migrant workers from Mexico, said. “That’s a reality that we have to deal with, and inaction is not acceptable as a policy position. I will state my case and be very forceful about that, just as you will.”

The presentation ended, Garza said, with a standing ovation from “about half” in the audience. The other half, he noticed, sat quietly.

In an interview with Yahoo News after his Scottsdale speech, Garza said that the challenge of convincing non-Hispanic conservatives is “by far” more difficult than winning Hispanic hearts and minds for the conservative cause.

“It’s important that we not only do the outreach to the Hispanic community, but it’s also important that we do outreach to the non-Hispanic conservative movement,” Garza said. “The issue of immigration in and of itself is so complex and so emotionally charged. Immigration means change. It’s folks from the outside coming in.”

“It’s a process,” he said.

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How one Koch-backed group is selling immigration reform to the tea party
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