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Latino Pol Is Tough on Immigration, to GOP's Delight

Steve Montenegro's support for an extremist racial-profiling bill has earned him cred in Arizona.

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 5:00 AM EDT


Eye of the Storm

Before SB 1070, Montenegro supported a number of other controversial initiatives that put him in the eye of the storm. He was the sponsor of HB 2281 to ban ethnic studies classes, arguing that they promoted the overthrow of the American government. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, is being used to try to dismantle a specific program in the Tucson Unified School District that focuses on Chicano studies.

Montenegro was also the major force behind a ballot initiative in Arizona to end affirmative action, which resulted in a decrease in funding for women's education programs.

He said he gets frustrated with the argument that all Latinos' views are monolithic or are pro-illegal immigration. "I think it's wrong to attribute illegal immigration to the Latino community," he said, "when the fact is that the majority of Latinos in this country and in this state are people that have followed the laws and are here legally."

At his office at the State Capitol, he reads aloud an email in Spanish that was sent to him by a woman who identified herself as a legal immigrant in the border town of Nogales. She writes that she supports SB 1070 and goes on to say that she sees with sadness that the underage gang members in her son's school are the children of "illegal immigrants." A letter read by Republican Sen. Lori Klein on the Senate floor sparked controversy earlier this year by drawing a similar comparison.

Montenegro's perfect Spanish has made him a virtual spokesperson for SB 1070 on the Latino airwaves, fielding questions that it would lead to the use of racial profiling against dark-skinned people. "This is an issue that every country deals with," he said. "For people to automatically say this is a racist issue, I feel that is wrong."

Montenegro says SB 1070 has been widely misunderstood. It didn't create a new immigration standard, but would have made police enforce the federal immigration laws already on the books by bringing uniformity to police enforcement, he said.

Several federal judges disagreed with Montenegro's assertion by enjoining most key provisions of SB 1070, saying the state law intrudes into federal immigration enforcement. Still, Montenegro doesn't think the immigration system is broken. "The process is there and there are millions of people that can attest to it working," he said. "Can we make it better? Absolutely. Let's do that. That's out of my hands; that's in Washington."

He says he would be open to increasing the number of visas available for people to come to this country legally, and review the costs and expedite the process for those who have been waiting for many years to migrate. But he says he doesn't support any form of amnesty. "This country has a big heart," he said. "The problem is when the rest of the world wants to take advantage of that."

Montenegro doesn't see a solution in legislation like the DREAM Act, a bill currently in Congress that would create a path to legalization for young people who came into the country before the age of 16 and have enrolled in higher education or the military. He said enrolling in the military and giving their lives for the country is a noble cause, and no one would argue that someone should not get legal status because of that, but "you can't equate that with other things like a student going to school."

"I think it's biased to be thinking of one group of people only, when 20 years from now you're going to have the same problem," he said.

He said Latinos should be outraged at Obama for not fulfilling his campaign promise of tackling immigration reform and then trying to blame the failure on Republicans. "Well, Mr. President, you have two years of all Democrats, both House and Senate. You promise something, you had the power to do it then," he said. "I'm not advocating for what he promised, but I'm just holding his feet to the fire. And what did he do? Nothing."

Montenegro says he wants it to be clear that as a politician he doesn't speak for the church. No matter how much he has tried to keep the two separate, his connection to the church came under fire last year.

Carlos Galindo, a political commentator for the Christian station Radio KAZA 1290 AM, said he has gotten several calls from upset people who claimed they were undocumented members of his church and said they had helped pay for Montenegro's education. "He says he doesn't know if they're undocumented or not, but he allows it because they're flock and they go to his church—but he has a problem with them on the streets," said Galindo. "There's hypocrisy."

Montenegro categorically denied those allegations, saying he got funding for his education through scholarships, loans, and help from his family. "At church we never ask people what their status is," he said, adding that politics are not part of the conversation either.

An undocumented immigrant who claims to be a former member of the church spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It hurts me that he knows what are these people's needs and he continues to try to oppress them," said the source, who left the church a year and a half ago in protest of Montenegro's political stance against undocumented immigrants. "He has forgotten that undocumented immigrants have family members that are not undocumented and can vote."

Montenegro said when he took a stance in support of SB 1070, he didn't do it as a minister or a pastor. "I did it as a legislator," he said. "You can't unite the two things. At church is not about politics. It's about salvation."

On this Sunday morning, he preaches about finding joy in the midst of oppression and finding strength through faith. On the church walls hang cardboard signs with the messages of the service: "Oppressed Go Free," "Undo Heavy Burdens," and "Break Every Yoke."

"The reason why we are, the reason we live, is to serve him," he says from the pulpit, as people burst into applause.

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