Donald Trump’s campaign is preparing to announce an Hispanic advisory board of evangelical pastors to help mobilize support for the GOP nominee.
Several evangelical Hispanic pastors tell TIME they have been invited to participate and that they are preparing to expand their outreach for Trump to Hispanic evangelical communities.
Cuban-American pastor Mario Bramnick of Miami says he will be part of the advisory board. It a step toward a far more targeted Hispanic outreach effort for the GOP nominee, whose unfavorable nationwide among Hispanics hover around 80%. “We were advised that Mr. Trump will be at meetings with key Hispanic leaders in Miami, Texas, and other key Hispanic populated areas,” Bramnick says. “We expect dates will be forthcoming.”
Bramnick is a chapter director for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest Hispanic evangelical association of some 40,000 member churches. He says he has not yet endorsed a candidate, but adds that the campaign has recently approved him as a Trump surrogate.
NHCLC’s president, pastor Samuel Rodriguez, Jr., has repeatedly been critical of Trump’s plan to build a southern wall and deport with force the roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
In late July, Bramnick was one of about a dozen other Hispanic community leaders who met privately with Trump in Miami when he held a fundraiser at the Trump National Doral Resort. The group—which included other Hispanic pastors and business leaders—was slated to have a private dinner to meet senior Trump staffers, when Trump unexpectedly joined for about 25 minutes.
Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, Trump’s senior political advisor Karen Giorno and the RNC’s deputy political director Jennifer Korn also participated. Bramnick says they discussed U.S. policy on Cuba and immigration.
Pastor Abraham Rivera of Miami’s La Puerta Life Center also attended the dinner at the Doral with his wife Marilyn, and has been invited to be part of the advisory board. Their church is a bilingual, largely youth-oriented evangelical congregation, and Marilyn leads government affairs for the South Florida Hispanic Ministers Association, a group of about 400 Latino evangelical pastors. Rivera says he told Trump that night that immigration is much more complicated than Republicans often say. Trump, Rivera says, added that Latinos would become Democrats if they became citizens, but Rivera responded that “Latinos by nature are conservative, pro-family, prolife.” Trump, he says, nodded in response.
Rivera plans to vote for Trump, but he has not officially endorsed him yet. He plans to ask the board of his local pastors association to endorse him as well. But he also has a condition. “Something we have told his staff that is we need him to make some kind of public statement about immigration, about stretching out an olive branch before we would publicly endorse him,” Rivera says. “We are not asking him to make a policy change, I think it is too late in the game for a straight up policy change, but there could be some smoothing out of language.”
Immigration remains the biggest sticking point for many leading Latino evangelicals, even if they already are sympathetic to Trump’s campaign. Dallas pastor Mark Gonzales is the founder of the Hispanic Prayer Network and the Hispanic Action Network, which represent some 10,000 churches. He helped to organize the large gathering evangelical pastors held with Trump in NYC in June and has also been invited to Trump’s forthcoming Hispanic advisory board.
Gonzales supported Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the primary, and has not yet endorsed a candidate in the general. Even though he supports Trump’s positions on the Supreme Court and the Johnson Amendment, which would give churches greater freedom to engage in politics, he said he wants to know Trump’s immigration plan before he would consider an endorsement and joining an advisory board.
“If you say you have to build a wall, build it,” he says of Trump. “What we want to know is, what are you going to do beyond the wall? … Deal with family reunification, deal with the guest worker program that is antiquated … then the biggest piece is dealing the 11-12 million who are already here in America.”
Still, Gonzales’ top focus from now to November is to mobilize the Latino church vote. The Hispanic Action Network is focusing on key states including Florida, Nevada, and Colorado. This past week he was in four states in seven days—Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee—to build up his voter outreach effort and raise money. His organizations are preparing a social media campaign and several voter mobilization apps. These efforts, he says, build on his 2012 Es Tiempo de Votar—It’s Time to Vote—campaign, to increase voter turnout among Hispanic Americans, especially in faith communities.
In the battleground state of Florida—where a recent Quinnipiac poll has Clinton up by just one point—picking up any percentage points matters, for either candidate. Nearly one in five Florida voters are Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center. A late July Florida International University/Adsmovil poll found that just less 13% of Latinos in the state plan to vote for Trump.
Rivera, for one, knows the work ahead for Latino evangelical outreach would not be easy. “You talk about Trump and a lot of people cringe,” he says. “But it is something that my wife and I feel we are called to do, to get the message out to other Latino pastors.”