Kochs in Pro-Immigrant Clothing
LIBRE’s Quest to Deliver the Latinx Powerhouse to the Right
On a balmy July evening in Tempe, Arizona, around two-dozen people gathered for a buffet reception and forum on immigration at the Arizona Heritage Center.
Sponsored by the LIBRE Initiative—a libertarian nonprofit founded by former George W. Bush White House staffer Daniel Garza to inform “the U.S. Hispanic community about the benefits of a constitutionally limited government, property rights, rule of law, sound money supply and free enterprise”—and broadcast live on Telemundo, the bilingual panel included a local immigration attorney; an undocumented youth from Aliento, an activist group comprising undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as “Dreamers”; and Carlos Alfaro, the Arizona coalitions director for the LIBRE Initiative.
“When you have a desirable economy with opportunity and freedom, people are going to want to come, and when people come, it only makes our country better,” said Alfaro, an organizer and public-relations specialist who set up LIBRE’s Arizona branch in 2013.
Flanked by placards touting the benefits of immigrants to Arizona’s economy—$2.5 billion added to the state’s GDP, $5.4 billion paid in taxes—Alfaro advocated raising caps on visas and urged Congress to offer Dreamers a path to citizenship in exchange for increased border security, a Republican sticking point. On several occasions, he lamented political gridlock on immigration. “We can point fingers at Democrats or Republicans…but at the end of the day, we need to point the finger at ourselves and say, ‘Am I being one of those people that is being polarized?’”1
Three attendees wearing Trump hats heckled the speakers during the question-and-answer session. The apparent ringleader, a White woman with long, curly hair, held up a smartphone as she interrupted the panelists’ discussion, broadcasting her stunt on social media. “Why do people come illegally when they can come to the U.S. legally?” she demanded. The trio snickered while the immigration lawyer explained that current immigration caps, set in the 1990s, fell far short of meeting the labor demands of the American economy over the next two decades. The woman tried to interject again prompting the moderator to ask the speakers for closing statements.
A musician played an electric guitar as attendees at the Arizona forum shuffled past tables of LIBRE swag—wristbands, pens, chapstick, sunglasses, and signs emblazoned with the group’s logo and slogan: “Limited Government · Unlimited Opportunity.” The three Trump supporters, phones aloft, harangued a formerly undocumented woman in the entryway, pelting her with questions whose answers they weren’t interested in hearing. On the patio outside, the trio accosted other audience members with argumentative questions, with the ringleader shouting at a woman who’d told them her husband had been deported for smoking marijuana. “Fucking stupid!” she screamed before slinking away.
To the casual observer—indeed, even to the hecklers who’d come to disrupt the pro-immigration forum—LIBRE may appear indistinguishable from progressive groups advocating for immigration reform. The group’s president, Daniel Garza has criticized Trump in the press for his rhetoric about Mexican immigrants, the president’s failure to support DACA, and most recently, the administration’s “zero-tolerance” enforcement policy that separated approximately 2,600 parents from their children at the border.2 Garza and leaders from LIBRE’s state branches publicly urge Congress to extend citizenship to Dreamers. The group ran an ad campaign titled “We Are Patriots,” assuring viewers that Dreamers are Americans who “work hard, put food on the table, care for our families, and…pledge allegiance to [the] flag.”3
The Arizona forum was among half a dozen events LIBRE hosted in late July 2018, including one on Capitol Hill, advocating for immigration reform after Republicans in the House of Representatives failed to pass an overhaul that included cuts to legal immigration, increased funding for border security, and a path to citizenship for Dreamers.4 An Obama-era initiative, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program currently shields 690,000 of the country’s estimated 3.6 million Dreamers from deportation.5 Shortly after taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump announced he was ending the program,6 but DACA remains active under several court orders, with the Supreme Court ultimately expected to decide its fate.7
“If Congress does not enact a balanced, bipartisan solution that protects Dreamers and enhances border security, tremendous uncertainty is just around the corner,” said Garza in a statement after the Capitol Hill event. “Congress is empowered to make and reform our immigration laws. This is the time to do so.”8
But the idea behind LIBRE is bigger. At events like the one in Tempe, LIBRE’s Carlos Alfaro may express sympathy for undocumented youth and urge reform. But ultimately, the organization he represents is less aligned politically with the Dreamer he shared the stage with than the racists in the third row.
Backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch—who have contributed more than $15.8 million to the organization through umbrella group Freedom Partners Action Fund9—LIBRE’s overarching goal is twofold: to convince Latinxs that laissez-faire capitalism will empower them and to draw the “sleeping giant” of American electoral politics—Latinx voters, who compose an increasing share of the electorate—to the Right. The infrastructure of their group comprises an advocacy arm, the LIBRE Initiative—a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which under Citizens United can engage in political activity and raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing individual donors—and an educational arm, the LIBRE Institute, which conducts community outreach. According to tax filings, in 2016 the groups had a combined income of $13.5 million.
“More [Latinos] self-identity as conservatives than liberal or moderate,” Garza told me. “What happened in the past is that those on the free-market government side…failed in the past to make the kind of investments that needed to be made in order to educate Latinos on the free-market, limited-government agenda.”10
With a permanent staff of around 60 in 11 states—including swing states with large Latinx populations like Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico—and an annual budget of around $10 million, LIBRE is a regular presence at Latinx community and cultural events across the country, erecting booths at Cinco de Mayo festivals and for César Chavez Day.11 The group gives away turkeys at Thanksgiving and school supplies in August. It provides free English-language instruction as well as citizenship, GED, and driver’s license courses. It offers seminars for aspiring business owners and conducted tax workshops after the Republican tax cut earlier this year.
LIBRE also seeks to bring its message to communities of faith. The organization’s director of faith initiatives, John Mendez, was previously vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals.12 In talks before religious congregations and right-wing religious groups like the Family Research Council, Mendez preaches that conservative economics have a biblical basis, echoing the “Gospel of Prosperity” rhetoric that has become popular among some conservative evangelicals.
“The Hispanic pastor will teach his congregants on the prosperity of God, but won’t necessarily teach them on how to manage, maintain, uphold that prosperity,” Mendez said in an interview with the Pacific Justice Institute, a right-wing religious organization. “We come in and inform them and teach them on those principles of economic freedom and free enterprise from not only a constitutional perspective, but also a biblical perspective.”13
But LIBRE has faced withering criticism from Democratic politicians and Latinx advocacy groups for supporting politicians and policies that progressives say hurt the Latinx community. The group opposed the Affordable Care Act, which decreased the percentage of uninsured working-age Latinxs by 18 percent;14 supports school vouchers that fuel White flight from public schools, leaving poorer Latinxs behind; and opposes raising the minimum wage. LIBRE has campaigned for “right to work” laws that defund unions and voter-ID laws that disenfranchise poor minorities.
Garza readily acknowledges that LIBRE’s advocacy on immigration falls second to its free-market fundamentalism. Noting that many Latinxs “are certainly not one-issue voters” even on immigration, Garza says the group will advocate against other Latinxs who “would expand the growth and size of government, who would restrict educational choice, who would increase the burden of taxes and regulation…and just take over the role of the market, the church, and so on.”
“While we may disagree with a candidate on immigration,” Garza says, “we’ll vote for the candidate based on that person’s position on taxes, regulations, healthcare, and education.”15
Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, a supporter of immigration reform and now the first Latina in the Senate, is one of the politicians whose candidacy LIBRE opposed. In 2016, the group ran ads attacking her for opposing a school voucher program in the state. Garza echoed that criticism in a Spanish-language op-ed for Univision, in which he also lambasted her opposition to education savings accounts and accused her of conspiring with regulators to keep Uber out of the state. “The fact that she is ‘Latina’ doesn’t excuse her for the harm she will do to her fellow Latinos,” Garza wrote.16 The Koch-funded Freedom Partners also spent nearly $8.4 million targeting Cortez Masto during the 2016 election cycle, making it the third-most expensive race in the cycle.
“In a career spent as a prosecutor, I’ve learned one thing: Always follow the money,” Cortez-Masto said on the Senate floor in April 2018 (following earlier criticism of the group from former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid). “What the Koch Brothers and their web of dark money organizations like LIBRE are really doing is deceiving Latinos and supporting the very same politicians who are working against Latino families.”
Daniel Garza openly acknowledges LIBRE’s connection to the Koch brothers, though the organization’s representatives often note that the Kochs are among “hundreds” of donors to the organization.
“I am proud to associate with Charles and David [Koch],” Garza told me. While David Koch has largely stopped his conservative advocacy due to health problems, Garza praised Charles’ “amazing” contributions to “the freedom movement.”17
Latinx advocates and academics refer to Garza as a “true believer”: an earnest libertarian who believes that, absent government intervention, “the market” regulates itself as a perfect meritocracy. In this utopia, LIBRE imagines a poor immigrant family can take a $5,000 school voucher and pay tuition at a $25,000-a-year private high school; that the for-profit health-care industry will work in the interest of the public good; and that corporations will use their increased earnings to give the average American worker a raise. Implicit in libertarianism is the idea that billionaires like the Kochs are beneficent and don’t rig the game.
“Libertarianism is designed to ignore social reality,” says Stephen Nuño, chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. “If we can ignore these realities, it’s a very romantic ideology. The notion that without government, [for] you the hard worker, the smart person, the creative entrepreneur, the sky’s the limit, plays into a lot of these American values. It does play into the immigrant dream.”
It follows that, while LIBRE purports to try to reach Latinxs across the board, its outreach efforts primarily target new immigrants, whom Garza says are most inclined to respond to their message.
“There does in fact exist a predisposition for these folks who come to sacrifice, to work hard, to come to America because they’ve seen the promise that their hard work can develop into,” Garza says.18
For LIBRE’s critics, the outreach to new arrivals to the country unfamiliar with U.S. politics is by design—anyone remotely familiar with the system knows that the Republicans who typically espouse libertarian positions are also the ones who decry “anchor babies.”
“A lot of low-education voters, especially low-information, never heard of LIBRE. In a new place, this organization comes along to give them training on how to open a business,” says Jorge Silva of the Latino Victory Project, who says he had a “front-row view” of the group’s tactics in Nevada when he worked for Sen. Harry Reid. (Silva was also Hillary Clinton’s national director for Hispanic media in 2016.19) “The main point of the LIBRE organization is an effort to deceive Latinos into supporting the politicians that are working against Latino families.”20
LIBRE is targeting not only misinformed voters, but also youth who are “hungry to be involved in whatever way they can,” says Reynaldo Benitez, special advisor for the office of Senator Cortez Masto.21
LIBRE supports immigration reform to the extent that doing so coheres with the libertarian belief that borders should be open and labor should flow freely across them. The group initially opposed DACA when President Barack Obama proposed it, objecting to it as an instance of executive overreach.22 The organization is now outspoken in its advocacy for Dreamers, but toes the Republican line when it comes to their parents. At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference, Garza said he opposed granting undocumented immigrants citizenship, instead endorsing a notion of “legality.”23 This would allow undocumented immigrants to remain and work in the country but deny them the full benefits of citizenship, including the right to vote and social services support—a proposal that would confer de jure second-class status on millions of people. The organization opposed Obama’s executive actions regarding Dreamers’ parents—known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents)—warning that granting protected status to the parents of Dreamers “may encourage more immigrants to enter or remain in the U.S. in violation of our laws.”24
A spokesperson for LIBRE said that the organization now supports an “earned” pathway to citizenship, which has meant various things under different legislative proposals but commonly entails undocumented immigrants admitting to the crime of breaking immigration law, paying a fine and back taxes before being considered for citizenship.25
Despite the fact that net migration from Mexico fell to zero in 201226 and the federal government spent $22 billion on immigration enforcement in 2018—more than the sum total of all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined27—LIBRE insists, in line with Republican orthodoxy, that the country direly needs more funding for border security.
A Partisan Powerhouse
LIBRE describes itself as “nonpartisan.” A spokesperson noted that in addition to its advocacy on immigration, which aligns more with the Left than the Right, LIBRE recently criticized the Trump administration for imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum28 and sent out mailers praising Democrats for their work on immigration reform.29
“We hold both Republicans and Democrats accountable,” says a LIBRE spokesperson. “We’re willing to stand with those who stand right and call out those who stand wrong. It’s not dependent on party.”30
But most of LIBRE’s political advocacy has benefitted Republicans. In 2014, the group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking four House Democrats for supporting the Affordable Care Act,31 which LIBRE believes “constrain[s] job creation and add[s] another layer of bureaucracy to an already bogged down system.”32 “The fact is that premiums spiked, deductibles spiked, doctor choices were reduced and quality suffered” under the ACA, Garza says.33
Three of the Democrats LIBRE targeted—Rep. Ron Barber in Arizona, Rep. Pete Gallego in Texas, and Rep. Joe Garcia in Florida34—lost their re-election bids. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick won hers against Arizona State Representative Andy Tobin, a strong supporter of Arizona’s infamous “Papers, Please” anti-immigrant law, SB 1070,35 which (among other provisions) would have mandated that immigrants carry documentation at all times and required police to racially profile Latinxs. (The Supreme Court ruled key portions of the law unconstitutional in 2012.36) That same year, the group also helped defeat Mark Udall in Colorado, a Democrat and strong supporter of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented.37
During the 2016 election cycle, LIBRE spent $700,000 on ads to support the re-election campaign of Florida Senator Marco Rubio,38 a fickle supporter of immigration reform. As a member of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” which drafted and passed a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate in 2013, Rubio opposed his own bill once the political winds shifted.39 For the 2018 election, LIBRE has launched a six-figure media campaign in Arizona to support Proposition 305,40 a voter referendum that would expand school vouchers in the state.
LIBRE “may believe that those policy positions empower Latinos, but I would say based on our policy analysis and given Latinos’ need to access healthcare, we tend to not agree with them on most positions,” says Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, deputy vice president in the office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation at UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza).41
LIBRE’s angel donors, the Kochs, have funded the campaigns of some of the most anti-immigrant politicians in the U.S., including Russell Pearce and Kris Kobach,42 the architects of Arizona’s SB 1070. They have backed Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa),43 who—with a few close contenders—is perhaps the most openly racist member of the House of Representatives. King told CNN he’d “like to see an America that is just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”44 On Dreamers, King said that “for every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”45 The Kochs are also one of the chief backers of Louie Gohmert (R-TX),46 one of DACA’s chief antagonists in the House, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another hardliner on immigration.47 Trump recently tasked Pompeo with investigating the “large scale killing” of White farmers in South Africa—a myth commonly espoused by White supremacists as the country seeks to redistribute land post-apartheid.48
“How could you make [Latinos] believe that these people who support these anti-immigrant politicians are doing something great for our community?” Latino Victory Project’s Jorge Silva asks. “[Daniel Garza] has a tough job—he tries to make people forget that his money comes from the Kochs, from the same money that supported Arizona’s SB 1070.”49
“I see LIBRE’s involvement in helping immigrants and advocating for pro-immigrant policies as mostly tactical, a means to an end,” says Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of pro-immigrant group America’s Voice.50
What LIBRE sees as smart strategies for reaching Latinxs with the free-market message, others see as stealthy indoctrination. The group recruits high-profile members of the Latinx community—from television anchors to high-school football stars—and opens offices near centers of civic activity like schools. With its substantial budget, LIBRE buys large swaths of airtime on Spanish-language radio and television, which have helped make it a household name among Latinxs. At its seminars on business development and driver’s license courses, the group invites government officials to offer information alongside LIBRE representatives espousing free-market ideology, giving the group’s views a patina of credibility (and potentially fusing the idea of the U.S. with conservative ideology in the minds of new immigrants).51
“When they do these workshops or trainings, they always have a member of LIBRE Initiative talking about how we need less government,” says Silva. “They call them ‘small business seminars,’ where they do provide information but also always have a member of LIBRE talking about need for reducing regulations… LIBRE takes advantage of people who are there for something they need, then go ahead and indoctrinate them.”52
This year, LIBRE launched a $100,000 campaign aimed at approximately 50,000 Puerto Ricans fleeing destruction from Hurricane Maria in Florida. The campaign, “Welcome to Florida,” provides English-language instruction, resume-building and mock interviews to migrants from the island in Orlando, Miami, and Tampa.53 While LIBRE Executive Director David Velazquez told The Weekly Standard that the primary goal was not to “activate” Puerto Ricans politically, the group nonetheless hopes its speakers inspire them to embrace free-market principles.54
In blaming both Republicans and Democrats equally for the failure of immigration reform, LIBRE’s critics say the group is misinforming and disenfranchising Latinx voters. Republicans have in fact been responsible for the failure of immigration reform during the administrations of former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama. In both instances, Republicans stonewalled immigration legislation that provided citizenship to the undocumented. When the Democrat-controlled Senate passed an omnibus immigration bill in 2013 that included a path to citizenship, the Republican House failed to put it up for a vote because it was expected to pass the full conference.55
“At the end of the day, LIBRE’s end goal is to spread their ideology and make people disengage from the political process,” the Latino Victory Project’s Silva says. “They want to make Latinos think the political system doesn’t work, both parties are the same, and what Latinos need to do is focus on local politics.”56
For Stephen Nuño, chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, LIBRE serves yet another purpose in the overarching political landscape.
“If you’re a moderate Republican you can look at LIBRE and say, ‘See we’re going after Latinos; we’re not racist,’” he says. “Republican outreach to Latinos has less to do with Latinos than with giving White voters cover for the racist policies of the Republican Party.”57
In some ways, LIBRE feels like a throwback to an earlier political era. In principle, there is no inherent contradiction in supporting immigration reform and conservative economics. This was George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which drew 40 percent of the Latinx vote in 2004.58
“LIBRE is a relic of a different era of the Republican Party,” Stephen Nuño says. “Anyone who thinks that Republicans care about free markets today is mistaken. Since 9/11 and 2008, it’s become an overwhelmingly White nationalist enterprise.”59
The GOP has become progressively more radical on immigration since the Bush years, meaning LIBRE occupies an ever-shrinking space on the political map. Only 31 percent of Latinxs voted for John McCain in 2008,60 a number that fell to 27 percent in 2012 for Mitt Romney,61 who advocated “self-deportation”—the policy of making the lives of undocumented immigrants so unbearable that they choose to leave the country voluntarily—as a solution to the country’s immigration problem.62 After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee released an autopsy urging its politicians to embrace same-sex marriage, court women voters, and change their hardline opposition to “comprehensive immigration reform” (that is, immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented).
“Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” read the report from the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project.63 “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Over the next six years, the GOP did precisely the opposite. Now, with President Donald Trump, an immigration hardliner, leading the GOP, most of the politicians who share LIBRE’s views on economics oppose immigration reform. Garza is right that more Latinxs describe themselves as conservative than liberal (32 percent versus 28 percent), but the largest share (36 percent) describes themselves as “moderate.” Around 65 percent of registered Latinx voters now identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, and the percentage of Latinxs who say Democrats have more concern for them than Republicans has jumped 11 percent since 2004.64
Garza noted that Trump outperformed Romney in the 2016 presidential election, garnering 29 percent of Latinxs’ votes.65 “Democratic outreach efforts focused on insulting candidate Trump’s supporters—they really failed to drive a persuasive message and didn’t focus on opportunity and jobs,” he says. “[Trump] was the one making promises to increase jobs, wages and economic growth. The number one priority for Latinos, in poll after poll, is jobs and the economy.”66
Garza is right here, too: Polls show that Latinxs list jobs and the economy atop immigration as political concerns.67 But immigration is nonetheless dispositive for Latinxs. Most Latinxs in the U.S. are citizens who were born here, but many have extended family members, or community connections, who are undocumented. Politicians’ views on immigration serve as a touchstone for how they view Latinxs more generally. One might expect Latinxs to have punished Trump more severely for his rhetoric about Hispanics, but outperforming Romney by two points doesn’t suggest a fundamental shift in how Latinxs view the Republican Party.
More to the point, Latinxs on the whole support government intervention in society at higher rates than the general population. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 75 percent of Latinxs say they would “rather have a bigger government which provides more services than a smaller government which provides fewer,” compared with 41 percent of the public at large. Support for larger government is strongest among first-generation Latinx immigrants, 81 percent of whom share this view.68
“There have been attempts to categorize Latinos in simplistic fashion on both sides,” Martínez-de-Castro says. “It’s not a monolith, but through polling you see that on one hand Latinos believe you need to work hard and believe in self-reliance. But they also believe that we should invest more in public education or in quality education, access to healthcare, are willing more to pay in taxes to see those things happen.”69
LIBRE’s message will inevitably resonate with the third of Latinxs who naturally skew conservative, as well as Cubans, who have historically aligned with Republicans.70 But it is difficult to imagine the group can grow the number of free-market Latinx libertarians in the country with Trump in the White House and other immigration hardliners at the fore of the GOP.
“Their market share is going to be limited by the fact that they are ultimately dependent on one funding source and restricted by an ideology that doesn’t have a lot of purchase on a community that needs a strong government to get ahead,” says Sharry of America’s Voice. “LIBRE is not an organic community push for libertarian ideas. It’s a top-down, well-funded, sophisticated political operation.”71
That raises the question of what purpose LIBRE ultimately serves in the political ecosystem. It is difficult to fault the organization for the social services it provides. LIBRE could be more transparent in disclosing its connection to the Koch brothers, but like many other nonprofits in the post-Citizens United era, there is little incentive to disclose more than the law requires. What’s more, after seven years of operation, the group’s Koch ties have been dissected in story after story in the media—a simple Google search shows the group’s extensive connection to the conservative mega-donors.
LIBRE’s most nefarious influence on the political system may be in its ability to pour Koch money into close elections in districts with large Latinx populations. On television and on the radio, LIBRE does not disclose its Koch connections—voters hear the group’s message without knowing the source. And with their attack ads in Texas, Arizona, and Florida, the group was successful in helping to oust three Democrats over the Affordable Care Act.
But the organization’s ability to significantly shift Latinxs’ political alignment is imperiled every time President Donald Trump leads attendees at a rally to chant, “Build the wall.” Or, as Silva put it, “I wonder how Puerto Ricans are going to feel when they say it’s good the government doesn’t spend more money given how little it spent in the recovery efforts for Hurricane Maria.”72
The GOP may someday return to “compassionate conservatism,” but the trend line over the last 15 years has been moving the party toward ever more draconian immigration policies. And even if Republicans heed their advice, and soften their stance on immigration, the damage done to the party’s brand among this demographic will continue to make recruiting efforts difficult. But until that happens, LIBRE will remain a cause without a party.
If anything, LIBRE’s outreach efforts highlight how little Democrats have invested in courting Latinxs, who vote at significantly lower rates than other groups.73 Come election time, news stories tease readers with headlines declaring that the “sleeping giant” of American politics may finally wake up, but as long as both parties makes little concerted effort to woo Latinxs, they will remain somnolent.
“If you look at Latino voters, they report that they receive very little outreach from [both] parties and candidates,” Martínez-de-Castro says. “If LIBRE being on the ground gets Democrats to start working a little harder—to not take these voters for granted—that’s a good thing.”74