Latino Evangelicals Push—and Win—on Death Penalty Abolition in Nebraska

By Aura Bogado May 29, 2015

Nebraska’s legislature got the 30 votes it needed to override a veto and abolish the death penalty this week. Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican and staunch death-penalty supporter, had vetoed the abolition bill, LB-268, but lawmakers overrode it, making Nebraska the first red state to abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976. The law is retroactive which means prisoners currently on death row will be serving life sentences rather then being put to death.

Nebraska doesn’t usually register as a death penalty state: Since the Supreme Court reaffirmed capital punishment almost 40 years ago, Nebraska has executed three people. The last was 18 years ago, in 1997. Talking to The New York Times this week about why he wanted to retain capital punishment in his state, Ricketts said, “We have 10 inmates on death row — we don’t have hundreds.” Although that’s far fewer than states such as California, which has 743 people on death row, it’s not a small number compared to states such as New Hampshire and Wyoming, each with with just one death row prisoner. 

Nebraska isn’t usually considered a Latino state, either: Latinos make up just 10 percent of the state’s population. But, like the rest of the United States, Nebraska is changing—and it’s not due to Latino migration, which likely peaked around the year 2000. “The largest growth from the last census [for Nebraska] has taken place not from new immigrants, but from natural growth—the children of immigrants, the second generation,” according to University of Nebraska, Omaha, sociologist Lourdes Gouveia. “By 2030, if not way before, more than 25 percent of Nebraska’s population will very likely be Latino,” she adds.

Latinos are overrepresented on Nebraska’s death row: despite being just 10 percent of the population, they account for 50 percent of the people on death row there. (Of the remaining prisoners, three are white and two are black.) From the start, repealing Nebraska’s death penalty was set to be an uphill battle, but it was done with a coalition of support that also included Latino evangelicals.

“We’re the quintessential swing voter,” explains Gabriel Salguero who leads the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, or NALEC—an alliance of some 3,000 evangelical congregations. “We’re religious, so people assume we’re conservative and Republican,” says Salguero. “But we’re Latino, so people assume we’re liberal and Democrat.”

In March of this year, after about one-and-a-half years of discussion, NALEC’s 22-member board made a unanimous decision to oppose the death penalty, becoming the first national Evangelical organization in the country to do so. Citing that 153 people have been exonerated nationwide since the death penalty was reinstated, botched executions, as well as economic and racial disparities in sentencing, NALEC has declared capital punishment systemically flawed. But there’s also spiritual argument at stake: theology. “All life is precious,” says Salguero. “We’re pro-life: womb to the tomb.”

No other national Evangelical group has yet taken a stance on the death penalty. In fact, The National Association of Evangelicals currently supports it—although its statement dates back to 1973. In the state of Nebraska, however, Evangelicals came out against capital punishment. Salguero’s NALEC took its stance on March 27, just as Nebraska’s lawmakers were preparing to vote on abolishing capital punishment. He calls their decision a clarion study in just how disproportionally people of color are sentenced to death. NALEC, he says, didn’t have time to work with legislators directly but its position signaled to congregants that they should work against capital punishment.

Aside from League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which has an anti-death penalty policy and supported Nebraska aboltion on social media, secular national Latino organizations were all but absent from the Nebraska campaign. Capital punishment isn’t necessarily seen as a Latino issue, like immigration is—although there is a disproportionate number of Latinos on death row in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Utah.

The National Council of La Raza, also known as NCLR, doesn’t have a position on the death penalty. In an e-mail to Colorlines, its communications director Julian Teixeira declined to be interviewed, explaining, “Unfortunately, that is an area we don’t follow and thus can’t comment on."

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, meanwhile, says that its board doesn’t take positions on broad policies like the death penalty. Instead, the civil rights organization often works on lawsuits and provides scholarships. MALDEF President Thomas Saenz says the organization focuses on employment, education, immigrant rights and voting rights—although he agrees that bias in the criminal justice system is a matter of great concern. 

MALDEF does take positions on legislation. It has advocated against the death penalty in connection with a California bill, but Saenz says the organization doesn’t follow every bill in every state. But, for Saenz, it’s not just about limited time and resources—it’s also about a national organization not having an office in Nebraska. “Our positioning can sometimes be counterproductive,” explains Saenz. “It [brings] allegations of carpet-bagging [and] outsider influence.” MALDEF has previously done work in Nebraska, however, challenging anti-immigrant housing covenants in 2010.

National anti-death penalty organizations, meanwhile, have been partnering on the ground with state groups such as Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NADP). Equal Justice USA’s Mona Cadena, a campaign strategist, has been working with conservatives and even tea party-types, groups that support death-penalty abolition because they see it as a waste of money and resources. She’s worked with NALEC, the Latino evangelicals pushing against the death penalty, and she says that LULAC has filed a number of amicus briefs against death sentences on behalf of Mexican nationals. But, when it comes to national Latino civil rights groups, there hasn’t been much more. “Organizations have priorities, and I get that because I work for a small organization,” says Cadena. “The death penalty can be a hard issue to choose."

Nevertheless, even though Latinos make up the clear majority of people on death row in Nebraska, it was largely Evangelicals—and not those Latino organizations known for their progressive stances—that added their voices for abolition. Latino Evangelicals’ victory on this issue may be harbinger of what’s to come as the Latino population grows in the Midwest.