Susana Martinez: Can a Latina governor be anti-illegal immigration?

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez acknowledged last week that she is descended from illegal immigrants. But as governor, she's taken a strong stance against illegal immigration. In that way, she's testing the boundaries for a new kind of conservative.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez holds a news conference in the lobby of the governor's office in Santa Fe on April 8.

The announcement last week by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) that her paternal grandparents came to the US illegally brought national attention to a small but growing trend in American politics: the rise of the anti-illegal immigration Latino.

Since taking office last year, one of Governor Martinez's top priorities has been repealing a state law that lets undocumented immigrants get a driver’s license – something legal only in New Mexico, Washington, and Utah. Martinez also signed an executive order earlier this year requiring state law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of criminal suspects.

Even before confirming the rumors about her lineage, Martinez had drawn criticism from immigrant advocacy groups for such policies. Her acknowledgment last week only heightened the backlash, with critics saying her politics are hypocritical given her background.

The comments speak to the particular challenges that conservative Hispanics face in taking a hard line on illegal immigration. Yet Martinez's rise to the governorship also suggests that Latino politicians can break out of the traditional mold, even on this most sensitive of issues.

"It’s very possible that Republicans – both Latino and non-Latino – can be supportive of immigration reform," says Rosalind Gold, a senior policy analyst at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). "This is internally an issue on the rise for Latino Republicans in statewide positions, which means there are going to be more people who are going to be supportive of immigration reform."

Martinez is one of the most prominent members of the growing ranks of Latino Republicans in politics. In 2001, there were 30 Latino Republicans in state legislatures nationwide. Today, there are 41. During the same period, Latino Republicans holding statewide office have increased from one to five.

Likewise, a record number of Latino Republicans were elected to Congress last November, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, the only current Hispanic Republican in the Senate.

Though the numbers are small, they represent a historic high-water mark. “This is the first time we’ve had relatively this many Latinos in this position,” says Ms. Gold. “It’s a trend stemming from a combination of both strong Republican gains in the last election with Latinos being able to run viable campaigns.”

With this slow growth of Latino Republicans comes a more conservative take on illegal immigration as well as new political calculations. Martinez won the gubernatorial election in 2010 despite losing the Hispanic vote.

“The growing number of Latino Republicans demonstrates that Latinos are able to run in non-Latino districts and can have broad appeal across all ethnicities and communities,” Gold says.

But this past week has shown how anti-immigration Latinos can also be encumbered by their background.

“Politicians don’t come to the table with one particular identity, but with a list of them,” says Catherine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who specializes in immigration issues. “One’s their ethnicity, one’s their professional background, and so forth, and balancing those is their greatest challenge.”

While Gold says she is confident that Latino Republicans will become a mainstay in the political arena, Martinez in many ways is emerging as a trailblazer for them. The fallout from the past week could hold broader lessons going forward.

“This is sort of a testing ground," Professor Wilson says. "I don’t think we can predict what will happen in the political sphere because there are not a lot of models like her.”

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