ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The oldest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S. is facing turmoil over its leader's initial support for President Donald Trump's immigration plan and it comes amid evolving membership that includes politically active immigrant students.
Until about 10 years ago, the League of United Latin American Citizens was known for its efforts to "Americanize" Hispanic residents following decades of group support for restrictive U.S. immigration policy.
But members say a deep split that emerged last month between some of the group's 132,000 members and its president, Roger Rocha, reflects how the organization known as LULAC has transformed to include immigrant rights as a central feature of its agenda.
"It took a while but LULAC finally got with the times," said Dennis Montoya, the state director of LULAC New Mexico. "Immigrants are an important part of our community."
Rocha has been under intense pressure to resign after he wrote a letter on Jan. 28 supporting Trump's border security proposal — including the U.S.-Mexico border wall and a reduction in visas for foreign relatives of U.S. citizens in exchange for greater protections for children in the U.S. who were brought to the country illegally by their parents and parents who overstayed visas.
Rocha later rescinded the letter and called writing it "the worst mistake of my life" but said he will not resign. Some members of the group's 12-member executive board have said they will mount an effort to impeach him next week at a 3-day meeting in Washington, D.C.
Montoya said Rocha should have known that his support for Trump — which was not backed by the group's board — would have been widely viewed as a step backward to positions that the group has not supported for decades.
The group generally supported immigration restrictions in the 1940s and 1950s and a civil rights lawyer, Gus Garcia, who worked with the league held a historic meeting with President Harry Truman in which he asked for a crackdown on immigrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
Later, the group sought the reduction of the "Bracero Program" in the 1950s that allowed low-wage Mexican guest workers to work legally in the U.S. before leaving or staying permanently.
Founded in 1929 by World War I veterans, the League of United Latin American Citizens formed in response to the discrimination that Mexican American veterans and residents faced in Texas. The group soon expanded to other states and grew even larger after World War II when U.S. soldiers with Mexican roots came back from fighting in Nazi Germany ready to take on segregation.
Unlike mutual aid societies of the time that helped Mexican immigrants in the U.S., the League of United Latin American Citizens felt "Americanized" Hispanics would be better suited to battle discrimination. Chapter meetings always started with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer attributed to George Washington.
Those "Americanization" efforts continued until the late 1960s when a new generation of activists sought to include immigration reform as part of the group's efforts, California LULAC state director Dave Rodriguez said. And that trend has only intensified in recent years.
"Now this new generation and more young members are speaking out," Rodriguez said. "The old LULAC is gone."
Jeronimo Cortina, a University of Houston political science professor, cited changing demographics among U.S. Latinos as the main reason for members' anger with Rocha. And most Latinos either have relatives in the U.S. who are in the country illegally or know of people who are.
"Many Latinos now come from mixed-status families," Cortina said. "So it's no surprise that LULAC members are slowly changing the group."
Some members warn against adopting stances that would favor immigrants over Latinos who are U.S. citizens and those with legal permission to live and work in the country.
Baldomero Garza III, a LULAC district director in Houston, said in a letter to members that the group should "represent the interests of all Americans first," including the more than 40 million U.S. Latinos.
"Let's be crystal clear: Dreamers are foreign citizens in our country," Garza wrote. "They have taken advantage of our benefits, benefits meant for American citizens."
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras