Hispanic activists who viewed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as a voice of moderation on illegal immigration say they have been taken aback by the hard-line stance he has adopted as a Republican presidential candidate.
While governor, Huckabee gained favor with Hispanic leaders by denouncing a high-profile federal immigration raid and suggesting some anti-illegal immigration measures were driven by racism. He advocated making children of illegal immigrants eligible for college scholarships.
Huckabee's Republican presidential rivals have tried to make an issue of the scholarship plan, portraying him as soft on illegal immigration, an important issue for many Republican voters.
Huckabee responded this month by unveiling a plan to seal the Mexican border, hire more agents to patrol it and make illegal immigrants go home before they could apply to return to this country.
He has also touted the support for his candidacy of the founder of the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group whose volunteers watch the Mexican border.
Though he still defends the scholarship provision, Huckabee's new tone bothers Hispanic leaders like Carlos Cervantes, the Arkansas director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
"He's trying to be tougher on immigration than we've ever seen him before," Cervantes said. "That's kind of worrisome now. He was willing to work with the communities. I don't see that he's willing to work with us now."
In 2005, Huckabee tried to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for scholarships and in-state college tuition.
Joyce Elliott, the former state representative who sponsored the scholarship measure, said she originally had wanted to offer just in-state tuition, but Huckabee's office asked her to add the scholarship provision.
"The notion I got from him is that he believed it was the right thing to do," said Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock.
The measure ultimately failed in the Legislature that year and has now become a favorite talking point for Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, Republican presidential rivals who want to paint Huckabee as soft on illegal immigration.
Huckabee, who left office in January 2007 after 10 years as governor, said in a debate last month: "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."
It is that kind of rhetoric that Hispanic activists praised when Huckabee was in office. The same year Huckabee backed the scholarship provision, he criticized the federal government for a raid on an Arkadelphia poultry plant.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents arrested 119 illegal workers in the raid at a Petit Jean poultry plant, sending 107 out of the country either voluntarily or through deportation.
Huckabee also opposed a Republican lawmaker's efforts in 2005 to require proof of legal status when applying for state services that are not federally mandated and proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Huckabee derided the bill as un-American and un-Christian.
Hispanics said they were also encouraged by Huckabee's support as governor for Mexico opening a consulate in Little Rock and his efforts to draw more Hispanics into the state Republican Party. Huckabee told a Little Rock audience last year that the nation was being given a chance to make up for past racism by the way it handles the influx of Hispanics.
Former LULAC President Hector Flores said he admired Huckabee's leadership on immigration and praised Arkansas as an example of a new frontier for Hispanics when the group held its convention in Little Rock in 2005.
"I thought he was doing the best thing to chart the course for Arkansas in a more moderate fashion, being open to new ideas," Flores said.
Flores said he is troubled by Huckabee's more recent stance on immigration, which he considers a reversal.
"I think he's getting bad advice," Flores said. "I don't know who he's listening to. That's not the progressive attitude that I sensed and observed two years ago in Arkansas from Governor Huckabee."
Huckabee's Hispanic supporters say there's been no change in his position and that despite his moderate tone, the former governor never called for amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"I don't think he ever said we need to give somebody a free ticket," said Ephrain Valdez, who was appointed by Huckabee to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. "He's socially moderate, but he's also practical. Practicality needs to be the emphasis there."