Obama and Romney Finally Court Latinos – and Latin America

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon greet the delegates following their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012 on the sideline of the G20 summit

It’s a doleful time for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who leaves office in five months. Thanks to a bloody drug war and a limp economy that only now is starting to rebound, his party’s candidate is running third in voter polls for the July 1 presidential election. But Calderón has U.S. President Barack Obama to cheer him up. Last week Obama announced he was halting the deportation of undocumented migrants brought to the U.S. as children, a decision greeted with loud applause in Mexico. “Thank you for the valor and courage,” Calderón gushed to Obama while hosting the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, this week. No sooner had Calderón said that than Obama invited Mexico to take part in negotiations for the important new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with Asia.

But this isn’t just about a simpatico U.S. President: Obama is being fairly calculating. His re-election campaign faces the daunting task of overcoming 8% unemployment, which Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this week isn’t going to improve any time soon. That’s helped Obama realize that he can’t take the increasingly pivotal Latino vote for granted – as Democrats usually do – and that like other minority blocs, Latinos respond more favorably to action than to condescending rhetoric. Toward that end, Obama likely got a big Latino boost last week by effectively enacting, via executive order, a significant piece of immigration reform, the DREAM Act, that’s been stalled in Congress for more than a decade and would let young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children stay and be eligible for work permits.

(MORE: Romney’s Dream Act Response Highlights Political Peril)

But Obama – who, like his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, is slated to speak this week to a gathering of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Florida – also seems to be learning that a U.S. politico usually gets a bonus by engaging with the Latin American countries that Latinos or their families hail from, especially Mexico. Republicans, meanwhile, still appear to go out of their way to alienate not just Mexican-Americans but Mexico, with their support of controversial immigration legislation like Arizona’s and Alabama’s crackdowns, and with their refusal to acknowledge how lax U.S. gun laws exacerbate drug violence south of the border.

In his NALEO speech, Romney tried to repair his own dismal relations with Latinos by promising to replace what he called last week’s presidential “stop-gap measure” with a more “long-term solution.” He also pledged to “make legal immigration easier” and to broaden green card access for immigrant families, and grant residency to undocumented immigrants who serve in the military.

Back in 1990, when George H.W. Bush and then Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari were negotiating the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Bush made a point of going to Monterrey, Mexico, for a ceremonial powwow with Salinas. A Bush aide – one of the typically Euro- and Asia-centric Beltway Ivy Leaguers (Democrat as well as Republican) who tend to disdain Latin America as a geopolitical inconvenience – told a group of us gringo correspondents that many in the President’s team thought the trip was unnecessary, that “we could have taken care of this with a phone call.”

(PHOTOS: Election 2012: Faces of the Latino Vote)

We heard later that Bush was none too happy about that quote. It wasn’t just diplomatically dreadful; it was politically dim, sending as it did a signal back to Mexican-American voters, who make up the majority of the Latino electorate, that their ancestral tierra wasn’t worth a U.S. President’s travel time. Fortunately for Bush, Latino voters understood otherwise about him, and though he lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton because of a sour economy, gestures like the Monterrey visit helped push his share of the Latino vote above 30%.

It’s a lesson learned well by Bush’s sons, former President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose Texas roots made them all the more aware of the Latino-Latin America connection in U.S. politics – and helped W garner more than 40% of the Latino vote in the 2004 election. It also explains why Jeb has been hitting the airwaves lately hinting not so subtly at the folly of his party’s strict immigration agenda. After Bernanke’s grim economic assessment this week, November 6 is looking more and more like Romney’s election to lose, but if the GOP continues to disregard key swing voters like Latinos – especially since they’re a large presence in key swing states like Florida and Nevada – it could jeopardize his chances.

Jeb’s protégé, freshman Florida Senator Marco Rubio, knows that too – which is likely the real reason Obama’s order last week made Rubio so peeved. The GOP has designated Rubio as its Latino liaison; and even though his Cuban background (which represents only 3% of the U.S. Latino population) doesn’t exactly endear him to Latino groups like Mexican-Americans, he’s done an able job so far. His key effort has been a compromise version of the DREAM Act – and his willingness to recognize that addressing the plight of a migrant brought to the U.S. illegally as a kid from Hermosillo is as much a “humanitarian mission” as helping a refugee from Havana.

(Cover Story: We Are Americans, Just Not Legally)

But Rubio’s party, not the President, should be the target of his ire. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill seem no more enthusiastic about Rubio’s DREAM Act than they were about the original, more liberal bill. They’re glad to see Rubio out there bonding with Latinos for the GOP, but they’ve shown little interest in passing his legislation or any other improvements to America’s utterly broken immigration code. Obama hasn’t fought hard enough for immigration reform, either; his administration, in fact, has been stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants in recent years. But he supports the DREAM Act, and last week he simply did what the GOP has refused to do. To Rubio’s complaint that the President did it to win Latino votes, one can only say: Gee, do you think?

I was in Mexico last week, and I had the chance to ask the leading candidate in the July 1 presidential election there, Enrique Peña Nieto, if he thought Obama’s move would put bilateral immigration reform efforts back on track. After thanking Obama himself, he said he was looking forward now “to doing everything in my power…to elevate the dialogue and redouble our efforts.” Peña wouldn’t take office until December 1, but that sort of optimistic appraisal of a U.S. leader gets back to Mexican-American communities in states like Nevada. If Romney wants to be the next U.S. President working with the next Mexican President, he’ll need to keep showing beyond his NALEO speech that he actually wants to work with Latinos – and with the countries they and their families left.

MORE: Was Obama’s Immigration Announcement Good Politics?