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Obama risks alienating Latinos with lack of immigration reform

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By Joshua Hoyt
Friday, March 5, 2010

I have known Barack Obama since 1986, when we were both community organizers. I am still organizing on the streets of Chicago, and what I see in the Latino community makes me fear that the president is oblivious to the pain wrought by our broken immigration system. It could have a profound effect on the 2010 and 2012 elections.

It didn't have to be this way. For a brief moment last year it appeared that Obama might realign the modern political map, cementing the Latino vote into the Democratic coalition by speaking plainly to the American people on the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Instead, he squandered a political gift handed to him by the Republican Party's nativist wing -- and its anti-immigrant rhetoric -- during the 2008 campaign. Candidate Obama promised to make immigration reform a priority during his first year in office, and the Latino vote surged to 10 million, from 7.8 million in 2004, and swung eight percentage points toward the Democrats.

Latinos gave 59 percent of their vote to John Kerry in 2004 but gave Obama 67 percent in 2008. The immigrant Latino vote expanded from 52 percent for Kerry to 75 percent for Obama, enough to deliver Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida -- and arguably North Carolina, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

But since taking office Obama has pursued a policy of increased deportations. The president's tin ear for Latino passion on this issue was clear to us in Chicago during his short tenure as our U.S. senator.

After he went into politics, Obama and I worked collegially on issues as diverse as health care for working families to citizenship for new Americans. But we last talked in September 2006, after I publicly criticized his vote as our new U.S. senator in favor of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Obama was shocked at the visceral anger the fence vote caused among his closest Latino allies. At a meeting for damage control, Carmen Velásquez, founder of the Alivio Medical Center for the uninsured and the closest thing to the patron saint of the Mexican American poor, refused to shake his hand. Obama apologized for not understanding the intensity of their feelings -- but clinically explained that the vote was necessary to restore public confidence in immigration enforcement.

Yet Obama did not prioritize the issue last year. To permanently affix the growing Latino vote to the Democratic coalition, he needed to call consistently for Congress to pass immigration reform. Instead, the issue got a brief mention near the end of his State of the Union speech, and Democrats are getting cold feet ahead of the midterm elections.

In its first year, the Obama administration was on track to deport some 400,000 immigrants -- far more than during George W. Bush's last year in office. On the anniversary of Obama's inauguration, Hoy, the Spanish-language newspaper in Chicago, ran a full-page picture of the president on its cover under the headline "Promesa Por Cumplir" ("Unkept Promise"). The sense of betrayal among Latinos -- especially immigrants -- is palpable, just as it was after Obama's 2006 vote on the border fence.

As president, Obama has followed the cerebral strategy that increased enforcement will win support for immigration reform. But if there is no serious progress on the issue, many disillusioned Latinos will stay home in November. Others will decide that because Democrats can't deliver on immigration reform, they might as well vote Republican on the values issues. Depressed Latino turnout in Illinois may well cost the Democrats the Senate seat that Obama once held.

And if the Democrats are cowardly on immigration when they have large majorities in the House and Senate, how will they feel after taking some losses in November? What will Obama's 2012 campaign promise to Latinos be? "Trust me on immigration reform. This time I really mean it"? He might as well say adios to those electoral college votes.

Obama must lead the charge for immigration reform by telling Americans the truth: that tough, fair and compassionate immigration reform is necessary for America's economy and national security, and not just for Latino voters. He must also, somehow, convince Latinos that he really does feel their pain.

The writer, a community organizer in Chicago since 1977, is executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. His e-mail address is jhoyt@icirr.org.


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