In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s Arizona primary, the Libre Initiative, a group funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, has been hosting a regular series of “citizenship workshops” where local attorneys in Phoenix, Tucson and other cities in Arizona assist eligible Latinos to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The workshops dovetail with other similar, free events: English classes, driver education, health check-ups, back-to-school programs and food donations. Oftentimes, Libre sponsors political and social events with popular Spanish-language media, such as a 2014 candidate forum with Noticias Univision, the top-rated Spanish-language television network, featuring Republican candidates for governor.
Those activities are sponsored by Libre’s education-focused non-profit arm, registered for tax purposes as a 501(c)(3).
At the same time, Libre’s political action group, its 501(c)(4), produces high-quality television and newspaper advertisements, in English and Spanish, featuring Latinos condemning the Affordable Care Act, denouncing government spending, supporting “school choice,” opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage, and publicizing the group itself.
Its director, Daniel Garza, a former White House liaison under George W. Bush, insists that Libre, which means “free” in Spanish, doesn’t “endorse candidates, we endorse ideas, so we drive an agenda of freedom-oriented, free-market policies.”
Nonetheless, it often targets candidates if they support issues or positions that, in Garza’s words, would “lead to more taxes, more regulation, more government growth.”
One 2014 television advertisement was aimed at Democrat Ron Barber who ran for a Tucson congressional seat previously held by Gabby Giffords, who resigned from the office following an attempted assassination that left her critically wounded. The ad featured a young Hispanic man saying that “my generation” can’t afford wasteful spending, while citing Barber’s support of Obamacare.
Barber lost that race by 161 votes to an anti-gun control advocate, Martha McSally who opposed immigration reform and in-state tuition to undocumented students, issues that Latinos support. Congressmen Pete Gallego of Texas and Joe Garcia of Florida were similarly targeted for supporting the Affordable Care Act.
Libre’s two sides work hand-in-hand, say Arizona Latino activists. One seemingly helping Latinos to attain essential services while the other pushes positions that run counter to decades of work by longtime community organizers.
“It’s a bait and switch,” said Ian Danley, director of One Arizona, a coalition of Latino community groups, in an interview from Phoenix. “They have a partisan goal as their end-game not a community goal. They’re not about building a voice that is authentic and represents the real needs of the people. It’s really designed to confuse voters.”
No issue represents this confusion more than immigration, says Francisco Heredia, national field director for Mi Familia Vota, or My Family Votes, a voter registration group.
And there is no issue quite as volatile in Arizona, which is home to self-appointed border militias such the Minutemen. Donald Trump, who is leading Republican polls in Arizona by double-digits, has fueled his campaign in no small part by referring to Mexicans as “thieves” and “rapists,” while pledging to build a wall along wide stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border.
In interviews, Garza says he supports “comprehensive immigration reform” but is quick to add that while Libre favors a “path to citizenship,” the political reality is that Republicans are opposed to such legislation. Therefore, he says, Libre takes a “libertarian” position of supporting a “work-visa bill” and “guest-worker programs.” Critics of this stance charge that it gives employers outsized control of workers.
Garza has also criticized Obama’s executive orders known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, as well as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, aimed at providing temporary relief from deportation for about five million undocumented immigrants.
And although Garza says he is offended by Trump’s comments on immigration, Libre has supported candidates — Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and Texas Congressman Will Hurd, for example — who opposed Obama’s immigrant initiatives, or in some cases, voted against the 2013 Immigration Modernization Act, which passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives.
“Immigration is a core issue in our community,” Heredia said. “It’s plain to see that Libre has another agenda, that it’s not looking for ways to help Latinos here and now. It’s a grass-top kind of approach, building something that works against Latinos’ best interests.”
Garza bristles at accusations that Libre is building a database of potential supporters to be shared with Republican candidates, though Libre did hold a candidate forum forum in Las Vegas in October attended by Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Nationally, he says, Libre has sent out “hundreds of thousands of mailers” on issues such as Obamacare, conducted phone banks, made home visits and paid for TV advertisements. Yet the organization’s emphasis is on issues, not candidates.
“There’s this misconception that we’re building this massive user base so that we can get people to vote Republican,” he said. “What we want is to advance free-market policies, that’s our goal, so we use an election as an opportunity to drive those issues. If that aligns with a Republican, than so be it.”
Libre is one of a network of Koch-funded groups that share a common message of cutting taxes, eliminating regulations on businesses and the privatization of most government services. It operates offices in more than 12 states including California, Florida, Colorado, Texas and Virginia, often holding events with other Koch-funded groups such as Generation Opportunity, which focuses on young adults, and Americans for Prosperity, the Koch’s principal advocacy organization.
Libre has received $15.8 million since it began in 2011 out of a Las Vegas office of Freedom Partners, a non-profit backed by the Kochs, The New York Times reported, citing tax records.
Critics contend that these groups’ efforts are aligned with those of the Koch brothers, one of the world’s largest owners of oil, gas and chemical companies and prominent donors to Republican candidates and causes. Libre’s call to support “free-market policies,” says Jennifer Allen, national director for Chispa, an arm of League of Conservation Voters targeting Latinos, translates into boosting politicians who oppose federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants, and other measures aimed at curbing climate change.
Americans for Prosperity, which also emphasizes its “fight for freedom,” opposes Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a proposal aimed at coal-fired power plants. The proposal is being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Koch-funded groups have also pushed legislation in state legislatures opposing federal efforts to combat air and water pollution.
Latino communities, Allen says, are often in neighborhoods that are nearest to power plants and other factories. Yet Latinos, she says, aren’t told that Libre’s call for “economic freedom” means eliminating oversight and restrictions on some of the country’s biggest polluters.
“Libre is very good about establishing certain values, using a common language that is rooted in the values of small government while playing on the words of freedom and opportunity,” Allen said in a phone interview from Phoenix. “Those are important and meaningful words in our community. It all sounds good until you realize what path they’re trying to take the Latino community. And that’s very concerning.”