Florida’s Latino evangelicals back DeSantis amid fear of new law

“The immigration issue is important, yes, but there are other things that we must also take into consideration,” says one evangelical leader.
The Rev. Felipe Diaz, left, listens to the Rev. David Cantillo read from the Bible at Iglesia Tampa Bay Para Cristo on Wednesday.
The Rev. Felipe Diaz, left, listens to the Rev. David Cantillo read from the Bible at Iglesia Tampa Bay Para Cristo on Wednesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published July 4|Updated July 4

Every week Cesar Cadenas motivates followers to study, pray and — starting a month ago — navigate a political landscape transformed by the policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“It’s a particular and very unique situation,” said Cadenas, a 44-year-old Mexican-American pastor and spiritual leader at Tampa’s Iglesia Jesús es la Vida (Jesus is Life Church) on Skipper Road.

His evangelical church of more than 70 members includes those with roots in Mexico and Central America. In recent weeks, Cadenas said, 10 families from his congregation have left Florida because of an immigration law signed by DeSantis that went into effect Saturday. In response to the departures, Cadenas and his wife Jerica, also a pastor, are working with a volunteer who specializes in immigration to help parishioners understand what’s coming.

Amid this, the loyalties of Hispanic evangelical voters who describe themselves as Republicans will be tested in the coming weeks and months as the law is enforced and friends and family members deal with restrictions, penalties and deportations. But according to interviews with pastors, political experts, Latino evangelicals and immigration groups, it’s far from certain that this conservative Latino bloc will lose its faith in the GOP.

“Most evangelicals are not single issue voters. We care about a variety of issues,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. The association does not support or oppose any candidates for office, but Carey said they talk about different issues.

“We want a country that provides freedom and opportunity for everyone. We want leaders who will inspire the best in us, not pander to our fears and prejudices.”

Hispanic evangelicals have supported the Republican Party for decades. They believe that it more closely aligns with conservative stances and Christian values, such as rejecting abortion and same-sex marriage.

Overall, Hispanics are the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. electorate, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Since 2018, the Latino voter population has grown by 4.7 million, accounting for 62% of the increase in the U.S. electorate.

And while Catholics remain the largest religious group among Hispanics, with 43%, protestants are the second-largest faith group, accounting for 21% of Hispanics adults. According to Pew, 15% of Latinos are evangelical protestants.

While the entire bloc of Latinos is too diverse to be counted on to vote as a monolithic group, evangelicals, because of their religious beliefs and traditional worldviews, are less likely to change political preferences. By contrast, Catholics can be divided and behave as swing voters, according to a poll before the 2022 midterm elections conducted by the political website RealClear Politics and the religious news service EWTN Global Catholic Network.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

In the 2020 election, one-third of Hispanics voted for Donald Trump, with over 40% voting for him in Florida, according to a study conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. A majority of Hispanic evangelicals approved of Trump’s job in office (57%) and his performance with the economy (58%).

In Florida, where Latinos make up 21% of voters, DeSantis won his reelection bid last year by a margin of nearly 20 points against Democratic candidate Charlie Crist. In doing so, DeSantis won 58% of the Hispanic vote.

But will that support be tested by a law that takes aim at immigrants from Latin American countries? The immigration measure will allow authorities to fine and issue felony charges to those who transport immigrants into the country illegally. Among its provisions is a requirement that businesses with more than 25 workers use E-Verify to check the legal status of its workers and require hospitals to track the Medicaid costs for noncitizens.

“No voter is a single-issue voter. We all vote for a series of different reasons, but the majority of those reasons converge into a position,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor. “What we have seen with DeSantis on education, against abortion or the gay community, is basically the essence of the evangelical community’s platform.”

As part of his campaign to win the GOP nomination for president, DeSantis has promised to end birthright citizenship, complete the construction of the southern border wall, encourage the use of deadly force to stop border crossings and deploy U.S. forces in Mexico to battle drug cartels.

Kevin Singer, president of Neighborly Faith, a nonprofit that promotes friendship across religious differences at U.S. Christian colleges, said DeSantis will struggle selling stricter immigration policies to younger evangelicals.

According to research by Neighborly Faith, younger evangelicals are more open and supportive toward immigrants and have a more lenient stance on immigration policies. Still, what may keep these evangelical voters in the GOP is an important link between evangelical voters, their viewpoints and messages they get from spiritual leaders.

And those evangelical pastors in Florida delivering these messages aren’t asking followers to stop supporting DeSantis.

Singer’s group surveyed 2,000 young people last year, including over 500 evangelicals, ages 18 to 25, about their politics and civic engagement. The study suggests their political opinions and public opinions are shaped by faith-related influences.

“Whether it’s a senior pastor, a Christian camp counselor, or a worship leader, young evangelicals take the majority of their political cues from the leaders they respect and follow in church,” said Singer, a co-author of the study.

Cadenas, for one, believes the immigration issue will not move Latino evangelicals to vote differently or away from DeSantis or the Republicans in numbers large enough to affect the primaries or the 2024 election.

“We consider other aspects such as family, work, education and marriage,” said Cadenas.

Cesar Cadenas is a pastor and director of Jesus is Life, an evangelical church in Tampa. He is also one of thousands of leaders from across the country who signed a letter to support a bipartisan consensus on immigration.
Cesar Cadenas is a pastor and director of Jesus is Life, an evangelical church in Tampa. He is also one of thousands of leaders from across the country who signed a letter to support a bipartisan consensus on immigration. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Even though he said that most of his parishioners who decided to leave Florida were afraid of being arrested and deported, Cadenas said he respects DeSantis for what he’s done on other issues. Cadenas said he supports a bill that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and prohibits discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. DeSantis championed both.

“The immigration issue is important, yes, but there are other things that we must also take into consideration,” said Cadenas.

Thousands of pastors and members of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical denominations and organizations, support a bipartisan bill to establish a path toward legal status and citizenship for those who qualify to become permanent residents. In Florida, these issues have sparked a wide-ranging discussion amid the furor surrounding DeSantis’ approach to immigration, which includes provocative actions such as the flying of migrants from the Texas border to the faraway locales of Martha’s Vineyard and Sacramento, California.

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said in a statement that he’ll pray that the bipartisan bill and federal legislation will find a way to succeed through congressional negotiation.

“Harsh state laws, including in my own state of Florida, are making life increasingly difficult for our undocumented neighbors, including many sisters and brothers in Christ,” said Salguero. “The need for federal legislation to finally allow the undocumented to earn permanent legal status and, eventually, citizenship is more dire than ever.”

James Massa, chief executive officer of the nonprofit NumbersUSA that advocates for stricter immigration laws, said there’s no doubt that DeSantis has been actively working to establish a legal framework in Florida that’s primarily aimed at restricting illegal immigration.

Massa’s group commissioned a poll of people who voted in the midterms, and according to its results, there was overwhelming support for E-Verify.

“E-Verify was supported by more than half of the voters, regardless of their political affiliation, religion, gender or age,” said Massa.

The Rev. David Cantillo speaks at Iglesia Tampa Bay Para Cristo on Wednesday.
The Rev. David Cantillo speaks at Iglesia Tampa Bay Para Cristo on Wednesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Still, there is some disenchantment among evangelicals.

Pastor David Cantillo, the leader of Iglesia Tampa para Cristo (Tampa for Christ), criticized the immigration law. At the Pentecostal church in the Uptown area, Cantillo is organizing with his community to discuss the impact of the legislation regarding health care and hospitals. The law requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to collect patient immigration information, which critics say will scare some from seeking medical attention.

“This is a major concern among my people. That’s why I want to address this issue with hospital representatives very soon,” he said. ”We have the right to speak when something is unfair and this is the moment.”

But like Cadenas, Cantillo said Evangelical voters don’t cast their ballots based solely on one issue.

Cantillo, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States at the age of 12, said some voters may change their minds and decide not to support DeSantis. But he doesn’t think it will bring about a significant change.

“It is still very premature to know what will happen,” said Cantillo. “But I don’t believe we will see a real earthquake among evangelical and Hispanic voters because of DeSantis.”