Antonella Packard to Lead Conservative Latinos 

La Rasa Republicans: Somos Republicans to engage Hispanics.

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click to enlarge ERIK DAENITZ
If you didn’t know that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith’s teachings have direct bearing on the DREAM Act—the recently defeated legislation to allow children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship—then you haven’t thought about the scriptures the way Antonella Packard has. Packard, the new Utah director of the national conservative Latino grass-roots group Somos Republicans, says the Lord’s dictation in LDS scriptures that “every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” was a lesson Republican senators like Utah’s Orrin Hatch forgot about when they killed the Dream Act.

“They actually want to punish the children for the sins of the father?” Packard says, quickly reciting the chapter and verse of the Doctrine & Covenants scripture before stopping in mid-sentence. “Can you tell I was a Sunday school teacher?” she asks with a laugh.

Packard is the model of what Somos Republicans are looking for in leadership: conservative, God-fearing, Constitution-loving, free-market-type thinkers. It also helps that she’s willing to take on her own party for bowing to extremist anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s State Bill 1070—the passing of which was the catalyst for the organization’s creation. The group, with 6,000 members in 12 states, is taking a different approach to fighting Draconian immigration laws and leaders. Instead of beseeching the establishment for compassion, they’re organizing by registering voters and educating Hispanics about immigrant friendly and unfriendly politicians so that Latinos are a powerhouse in coming elections instead of political scapegoats. The group has also formed a political action committee to contribute to immigration-friendly candidates.

“We’re a healthy chunk of the population,” Packard says. But, she says, voter turnout is so low that “there are going to be repercussions.” According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics make up 12 percent of Utah’s population, but only 2 percent of voters in the 2008 election were Hispanic.

While such a dismal turnout may mean Latino demographics aren’t courted by politicians the same way as other constituents, Packard shares her organization’s optimism that her group has potential to win over historically unengaged Latinos.

As a free-market Republican and an LDS Church member, Packard puts energy into reminding Utahns that Latinos are natural Republicans: religious, family-oriented, with conservative sentiments about abortion, marriage and other social issues. She also brings the message to Hispanics that not all Republicans want to deport first and ask questions later. “It’s about getting [Hispanic] folks motivated; let them know this is the party that does mirror their values.”

After emigrating to the United States from Colombia as a university student, Packard came to Utah, where she married into a family of entrepreneurs and was converted to the LDS Church. She got involved early on by helping Mexican immigrants navigate the citizenship process. In recent years, her business chops in financial consulting earned Packard positions with the Utah Hispanic Republican Assembly and as chair of the Utah Hispanic Latino Legislative Taskforce.

Mark Alvarez, a Salt Lake City immigration attorney who has been active in assisting youth and student groups in fighting oppressive immigration policies, is aware of Packard’s political clout in Utah County, and likes the Somos Republicans group for its message.

“I think there is some truth to the notion that these immigration bills are happening because Latinos are not yet organized enough, big enough and forceful enough to stop them,” Alvarez writes in an e-mail. Alvarez is impressed that Somos Republicans does not champion “state solutions,” even the more Hispanic-friendly ones like Sen. Luz Robles’ plan to create a waiver for undocumented immigrants in the state. “I do not think the Latino community needs one voice or 10 voices. The Latino community needs 10,000 voices. The more people who can participate as unique voices in organization of the Latino community, the better off the Latino community will be.”

Somos Republicans’ biggest strength may be its independence from the GOP, which allows the organization to take jabs at Republicans who are anti-Hispanic or anti-immigrant. That independence is what Packard hopes will resonate with typically apathetic Hispanics and something that Somos Republicans national founder Deedee Garcia Blase is banking on.

“We had been getting e-mails from Utah of people wanting to start a chapter there because they see us as social conservatives. These folks also tell me they see the Republican Party as racist,” Blase says. “But they love Somos Republicans because we tell the truth; we’ve earned their respect by not ignoring the big elephant in the room—which is how the Republicans deal with immigration.”

For Blase, history will repeat itself if Republicans aren’t careful, citing Colorado’s switch from a red to blue state in the 2008 elections: “What happened in Colorado is [presidential candidate] Tom Tancredo demonized Hispanics and immigrants, and Democrats used that issue to register over 200,000 Hispanic Democrats.” Blase learned from that incident herself, when the Arizona native founded the group Somos Republicans in direct response to the passage of Arizona’ controversial SB 1070, which allows local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.

Caught off guard by the passage of the bill, Blase says her group, with little preparation, has helped register 43,000 new Hispanic voters in the six months since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill into law.

“And that was with not having enough time to organize,” Blase says. “That was just off the sheer anxiety of pissed-off Hispanics.”

That’s a point Packard says will hurt Republicans who are betting now on immigration as an organizing issue. “By alienating the fastest-growing population in the country, how do you expect to win the elections in 2012?” Packard asks. While Packard and Blase toe the party line on most other issues, they do not share the zeal of their states’ legislators who seek state solutions for an issue that ought to be left up to the federal government. Still, both agree that states should work with the federal government.

“I am a supporter of states’ rights,” Packard says “But with immigration, it’s just impractical. What am I going to have to do, get a visa just to travel to Idaho?” While the group’s goal is to be more of a resource for Latinos, it helps that they still share most other sentiments with the GOP on immigration, advocating also for secure borders.

While Packard holds the unpopular position of telling her fellow Republicans that it’s not the state’s job to circumvent the federal government when it comes to immigration, she hopes her background as a conservative, an LDS Church member, and a businesswoman will help bridge that difference with her fellow Utahns.

“We all smile in the same language,” Packard says. “But when you have communities poisoned by vitriolic rhetoric, I think it’s just a misunderstanding—we just need to dig a little deeper to find those commonalities."

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