Hispanics skeptical that Obama, Democrats will deliver immigration overhaul

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A03

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 quinceaƱera dresses and SpongeBob SquarePants piƱatas. 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.

Kelly Standley, a coordinator of one of Colorado's "tea party" groups, also lives in Aurora. The highly motivated tea party movement nationally is pushing candidates to take more-conservative stands on a variety of issues, including immigration, and opposes anything that resembles amnesty. Standley says the community has been overrun with illegal immigrants; as evidence, he points to what he sees in his job as a manager at a Family Dollar store.

"If they're paying by credit card, I ask for an ID. Then they hand me a Mexico ID, and I say, 'Oh no, no, no,' " Standley said. He is also bothered by some of his customers' desire to speak to him in Spanish. "I can speak it; I just don't like to," he said.

The economy is paramount for Maria Garcia. Once prosperous, she bought two homes and the commercial building where she recently opened Florence Mini Mart.

But the mortgages on the homes are now larger than the houses' value. In hopes of affording the monthly payments, she rented out the homes and moved into an office in the largely vacant commercial building. Her daughters moved in with their father, unwilling to live in the empty office, she said. Her savings are drained, and she is contemplating foreclosure.

Garcia said she thinks that new immigration laws would bring prosperity to the community by allowing many more people to buy homes and would reward those who have lived and worked in the shadows.

"Some people have been here a very long time, paying taxes," she said.

About Obama, she said: "Maybe he will do something, because he's getting a lot of pressure. But I don't know. I can't worry about it right now."

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