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Hispanics skeptical that Obama, Democrats will deliver immigration overhaul

Ahead of the November elections, many Hispanic voters are uninterested in politics and losing faith in the Democrats, unless immigration reform is on their agenda.

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

AURORA, COLO. -- Maria Garcia can rattle off a dozen things that are more important to her than politics. Her sky-high mortgage payments, for instance. The convenience store she owns, which isn't making money. And, at this moment, the chili peppers toasting in the store's kitchen.

"I don't have time to think about politics," she said, rubbing her eyes amid the caustic fumes. "Ten years ago, I was doing good. But right now, when you have all these problems, you feel lazy. You can't do anything. Sometimes, it's better that you have nothing because you just have to make money to eat and to pay rent."

Garcia was among the 61 percent of Hispanic voters in Colorado who turned out in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama. But her political disengagement now hints at the difficulty Democrats face in rallying their core constituencies ahead of the November midterm elections.

Among Hispanics, one concern often voiced is that Obama has not moved quickly on changing immigration law. He campaigned on the issue two years ago, but he and his party appear hesitant to take on such a contentious issue soon after the battle over health-care legislation.

Immigrant advocacy groups have ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers, saying they risk losing the support of Hispanic voters if they do not establish a way for the 12 million people thought to be in the United States illegally to achieve legal status. They say there could be political consequences in swing states such as Colorado, where Hispanics made up 13 percent of the electorate in 2008.

A measure that would have created a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants contributed to the downfall of a 2007 bipartisan effort in Congress to remake the immigration system. But activists argue that disconnected voters such as Garcia might be motivated to go to the polls this year if lawmakers appeared poised to take up the issue again.

Indeed, Garcia perks up when the topic of immigration is raised, saying that from her own experience, she feels a strong kinship with those living and working here without papers.

A block from Garcia's store, East Colfax Avenue echoes other suburban streets where immigrant-owned businesses have flowered: lined with faded strip malls, enlivened by stores selling quinceañera dresses and SpongeBob SquarePants piñatas. There are hints of an underground economy as well: check-cashing stores, pawnshops and street-corner car dealerships that do not check credit.

"The Mexican people here need help," said Juan Luevanos, whose Mexican restaurant, Real de Minas, on this street is named for the Zacatecas mines where his family once worked. He thinks that giving illegal immigrants a path to legalized status would reduce crime and offer a measure of stability to a community in which many people carry fake IDs and cannot dream of buying a home.

An avowed Democrat, he shrugs when asked if he'll stick by his party this fall. He voted for Obama in 2008 but now says: "I'm fifty-fifty on him. He doesn't keep his promises."

The desire among Colorado's Hispanics for immigration-law changes is not limited to Democrats. Republican Diedra Garcia, president of DRG Construction in nearby Lakewood, said offering a path to legalization makes good conservative sense. "I believe [immigrants] are serving a clear economic need," Garcia said. "We need those resources, and without them I shudder to think what would happen to our economy."

That position puts her at odds with her party's most vocal strains, a divide that highlights the potentially toxic nature of the debate for many politicians.


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