Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, an immigrant from Ecuador who once dreamed of becoming her country’s president, has found an unlikely home in the tea party movement.
When she launched her campaign for county school board last week at Brion’s Grille in Fairfax, Va., she was not alone — flanked by immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America who have joined tea pascrty groups in the face of unrelenting criticism that the movement is isolationist and anti-immigrant.
Mancheno-Smoak, who started attending tea party meetings in February, is one of several immigrants running for local office in Virginia under the tea party banner.
Tito Muñoz, a Colombian immigrant who owns a construction company and won the nickname “Tito the Builder” as a vocal supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, is running for Virginia Senate. Jo-Ann Chase, a Puerto Rican, says she is the first Latina candidate for a state House seat.
In Northern Virginia, many of the immigrants who have gravitated to the tea party have roots in socialist countries and are intensely afraid that the U.S. is headed down the same path. They embrace the tea party’s small government, socially conservative messages and say the only immigration they are for is the legal kind. They don’t bat an eye when it comes to the movement’s tough anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric.
Muñoz hosts a one-hour Spanish language radio show called “America Eres Tu” broadcast Saturday afternoons on WURA 920 AM out of a trailer in Dumfries, Va. He prints copies of the Constitution in Spanish and answers questions about U.S. politics from those who are new to the country.
“If the immigrants understood what was happening in America there would be a revolt against those politicians,” said Muñoz, who became a citizen in 2008. “Obama’s talking one way and doing another and the Hispanics do not know about that hanky-panky.”
He has launched a state political action committee, TitoPAC, and a federal 527 called the Conservative Hispanic Coalition, to fund his run for state Senate.
“Why do immigrants leave their country? Because they don’t have opportunity and they don’t have freedom, because politicians control everything,” he said. “We come to America and we are going to have the same crap? Then we might as well go back there.”
Genaro Pedroarias, the national committeeman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Virginia, said the tea party is a natural fit for many of northern Virginia’s immigrants from countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
“Most Hispanics who come to this country come here to flee socialistic and oppressive regimes,” said Pedroarias, who is Cuban. “They are some of the most vibrant members of the tea party.”
Lin Dai Kendall, who left Honduras when she was 33, blames the U.S. immigration system for persistent unemployment among those who are here legally. She’s part Chinese, part Spanish and part Hispanic and doesn’t hesitate to call President Barack Obama a Marxist.
“These people want to call themselves progressive; I call them regressive,” Kendall said. “What is immoral to me is standing there with my hand out waiting for the government to support me.”
Vera Martin moved to the U.S. from what is now the Czech Republic when she was 5 years old. Now, she is hitting the campaign trail for her husband, who is running for state Senate, and Mancheno-Smoak.
“I come from a socialist country,” said Martin, who worked for a consulting firm that helped her country’s transition to capitalism after the fall of the Communist Soviet Union. “I know what socialism means. I know what socialized health care is like and I know what you pay to support that system.”
Latinos voted for Obama over McCain by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But his failure to deliver on his promise for comprehensive immigration reform has many feeling disheartened.
Muñoz and tea party-affiliated immigrants said the news media are just as complicit as the politicians, casting the tea party as anti-immigrant and racist – which he calls lies and propaganda.
The push to diversify the tea party movement comes from national umbrella organizations like FreedomWorks as well as from the community groups themselves. Roll Call reported last month about a national effort, beginning in Texas, to help tea party groups reach out to minorities using organizing tactics developed by liberal organizations.
“There is no way to deny it; the majority of them are white men,” said Kim Jossfolk, an organizer with a tea party group in Alexandria, Va. “We have a lot of minorities who I think are afraid to come to our meetings, not because we would do anything to them but because their communities look at them as some kind of traitor.”
Jossfolk, who is white, has invited Herman Cain, the black Republican presidential candidate, to address her group and works frequently with the offices of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is Hispanic, and Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who are black.
The tea party, much like the Republican Party, needs to focus on refining its tone on immigration issues or else it runs the risk of alienating Hispanics, noted David Cardenas, who partnered with Jeb Bush Jr. to found SunPac, a Florida-based group dedicated to engaging Hispanics in the political process.
“Even when there is a different political perspective, the tone is almost as important,” said Cardenas whose father, Alberto, was recently named head of the American Conservative Union. “They need to make inroads in the Hispanic community or they are going to be in trouble.”
If Democrats and Republicans both struggle with reaching immigrants, then the tea party may very well be the answer.
“To me, anyone that left their country to come to this country is a tea partyer,” said Marta Saltus, one of Smoak’s supporters whose family is Argentinean.
Correction: June 1, 2011
An earlier version of the article mistakenly referred to Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) instead of Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).