The war of words between Donald Trump and Pope Francis may be a boon for Latino voter advocates

Pope Francis at the border.

Pope Francis stands next to a wooden cross at the border between Mexico and the U.S. in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico February 17, 2016.

Max Rossi/Reuters

It's an unlikely pair to be having a war of words, but GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and Roman Catholic Pope Francis traded sharp statements about immigration and the Mexican border.

After hosting a mass in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border, the pope responded to a question about Trump's position on immigration: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel," the pope said. Still, he declined to offer advice to Catholics who are voting in this year's election.

Last week, Trump told Fox Business News that the pope is a "very political person" who doesn't understand US-Mexico relations. But this week's papal comment inspired Trump to respond even more forcefully.

"If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened," he wrote in a statement. "For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith."

According to Latino voter advocates, this spat has an upside: When Trump makes controversial statements, more Latinos gear up to participate in the elections.

Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a national organization that promotes civic engagement among Latinos, says it's too early to tell what the outcome of this most recent exchange will be. But, he says, "every time Donald Trump speaks badly about our community, I can see that more people become more anti-Trump and, I think more anti-Republican."

"The pope is not only appealing to Catholics. He's appealing to the Christian community as a whole. He's raising an issue, to 'welcome the stranger'," says Monterroso.

Popes over time

Pew Research Center

About 75 percent of Latinos in the US are Catholic or Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. According to Mi Familia Vota, 27.3 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in the 2016 elections. More than 12 million of those eligible voters are not yet registered.

Trump has a controversial immigration platform, which includes building a wall along the border and increasing deportations. Early in the race, he made controversial statements characterizing Mexican immigrants to the US as rapists and criminals. And while the Trump camp maintains they have Latino support, most polls show otherwise.

"Trump has impacted the community in a way that makes us see that we have to participate," says Monterrosa.

We've come a long way since 2013, when Pope Francis was selected. At that time, Trump expressed his support.

The Democratic presidential caucus is in Nevada on Saturday, while the Republican caucus there next Tuesday. The state has an almost 30 percent Latino population. Hillary Clinton's campaign released an emotional ad in Nevada featuring a young girl asking about her parents' deportation letter. Polls place her in a tie with Bernie Sanders for this weekend's Nevada caucus, while Trump has a commanding lead on the Republican side.

On a national scale, advocacy and analysis groups have said no candidate can win without a strong Latino showing.