Obama at La Raza: Can the President Re-energize Latino Voters?

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In 2008, Barack Obama captured more than two-thirds of the Latino vote, largely on the promise that he would make immigration reform a first-term priority. Even the President acknowledges that promise has gone largely unfulfilled, and as a result his popularity is plunging among Latinos. Can President Obama reenergize a diverse constituency for his 2012 reelection bid?

The President dealt with the issue head-on Monday in a sobering address to the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s leading Latino civil rights group. The NCLR’s chief, Janet Murguia, introduced the President by noting his administration’s record with Hispanics, starting with the arrival of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina Supreme Court Justice. But the applause felt forced as the President took the stage.

Much of Obama’s speech centered on economic issues, notable for the fact that the unemployment rate among Latinos is 11.6%, above the national average. He called the federal immigration system “flawed,” and repeated his belief, aired in a recent Univision radio interview, that Congress is to blame for the failure of the so-called DREAM Act, which could have put many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to legal residency. “Here’s the only thing you should know,” he told the audience. “The Democrats and your President are with you. Don’t get confused about that.” The President was interrupted at various points, such as when he acknowledged the suggestion that he use his executive authority to halt the deportation of non-criminal illegal immigrants, particularly students. “Yes you can. Yes you can!” a gaggle of young people screamed from the ballroom’s balcony.

Immigration now ranks as the most important issue to the nation’s estimated 51 million Latinos, despite the fact that nearly three-quarters are American citizens. The issue remains a sore point for the Obama Administration: It has argued that comprehensive immigration reform should be led by Congress. But the absence of such federal reform has enabled the wildly divergent state-level immigration policies. In the meantime, the Obama Administration is intensifying programs such as Secure Communities, intended to deport illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes in their home countries or the U.S. But critics say those programs are actually leading to the deportation of non-criminals.

For Obama, and certainly for both political parties, much is at stake. Latinos account for an estimated 9% of the national electorate, and will play a crucial role in 2012 battleground states, particularly Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. Latinos lack the partisan allegiance of blacks, although most younger Hispanics tend to register as Democrats. Minutes before Obama took the stage on Monday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued a press release noting that in a recent Gallup poll, Latinos’ approval of Obama has dropped by one-third, to 52%, since Dec. 2009. The National Council of La Raza invited four Republican presidential candidates — Romney, as well as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich — but none accepted. “To not even show up,” Murguia said, “shows that we, as a Latino community, do not seem to be a priority.”

Monday’s speech is the latest Obama Administration effort to court Latinos back into the fold. The President has met several times in recent months with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He has invited to the White House a range of high-profile Latino entertainers, journalists and religious leaders. Earlier this month, he held a “Hispanic Policy Conference,” dealing with a range of issues, including affordable housing and education.

But for many Latinos, immigration is no longer an issue that can wait: More than half know an undocumented immigrant, often a relative, according to Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan political research firm. In Latino neighborhoods across the country, the issue of immigration is upending families, and news of heightening deportations only dampens the affection Latinos once had for Obama. “In states where Obama has to compete, a dispirited Latino electorate could damage him,” says Gary Segura, a Stanford political science professor and a Latino Decisions principal.

There’s no reason to doubt President Obama is aware of what’s at stake. Nevertheless, the kind of substantive action Latinos want on immigration reform doesn’t appear to be an option, and probably won’t be, until after the 2012 presidential race.