Being Latino and being associated in any way with the Trump administration can be complicated.
In fact, it can range anywhere from uncomfortable to dangerous. Having worked in and around Washington for a number of years now, threats have become increasingly common.
We have received more than a few calls for violence at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the nation’s largest Hispanic Christian organization. The message is seemingly always the same: “Stop betraying your race. Condemn and renounce the president, or else.”
But now, as we stand at the precipice of the First Step Act becoming law, Hispanics and other minority voices who have refused the calls to walk away from Trump are likewise at the precipice of vindication.
First, let me state that these types of threats are simply unacceptable. They only inflame bigotry have no place in a civil society. Those of us who call ourselves faith leaders must lead first in finding the way back to peace and civil accord. To do so, we must acknowledge that both sides of the political aisle are culpable to varying extents, and we must model a better way. For our part, while the NHCLC issued strong repudiations of some of the rhetoric from the Trump campaign, we refused to write off or disavow anyone. We believed then, as we do now, that it was critical for Hispanic voices to maintain a seat at the Trump table, just as we’d done with both the Obama and Bush administrations.
Why are we so convinced of this? Because we’ve seen time and again that our voices do in fact help move the dial on policy issues. Do we get everything we want? Of course not, that’s now how politics works. Nevertheless, the slow wheels of democracy turn more in our direction when we help guide the process. The First Step Act is proof positive of this. In fact, if passed through the Senate, the bill will mark the largest criminal justice reform legislation in a generation, and the president deserves a great deal of credit for pushing it to the forefront.
Is the bill perfect? No. Is it better than what we currently have? Absolutely.
This sweeping legislation grants judges more leeway when sentencing non-violent offenders. Additionally, it helps ensure that prisoners are housed closer to family members and other support structures while transitioning eligible individuals into halfway houses and group homes to better prepare them for life outside of prison. Among the most pragmatic aspects of this bill, it engages faith and community-based organizations that outperform state-sponsored programs at reducing recidivism rates through personal and professional training.
All of these reforms are common-sense solutions that minority leaders helped craft, and none of it would have been possible had we simply refused our seat at the table in protest.
Shortly after the inauguration, NHCLC President Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and I were invited to sit down at just such a table with Jared and Ivanka Kushner at the White House. We were honored by the invitation to be sure, but we were also determined to convey where we stood on key issues. When asked what we believed should be the top priorities of the new administration, Rodriguez stated emphatically: criminal justice reform and comprehensive immigration reform. What followed was a deeply substantive conversation where we realized just how serious they both were about seeing real reform happen.
This First Step Act represents the culmination of dozens — if not hundreds — of such conversations between leaders inside the Trump administration and Hispanic, black and other minority leaders over the course of the last two years, often at great personal and professional cost.
While we continue to wait for meaningful progress on immigration reform, we at the NHCLC join alongside a truly diverse coalition in urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring this exceedingly worthy bill to the floor for a vote before the end of 2018. If he does, the First Step Act will likely pass, representing a crowning achievement not only for this administration, but for all those minority voices who refused to be moved or intimated along the way.
Suarez is the executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and author of the new book, The Triumphant Church.