President Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico, the first official state visit by a president in five decades, has been widely recognized as an attempt to reach out to voters back home, where winning the Latino vote is a key part of Obama’s re-election strategy. What’s still unclear is whether his visit, the latest in a line of high-profile speeches and symbolic gestures aimed at keeping his name in front of Latino voters, can substitute for the substantive reforms that Latino have been pushing for.
New poll numbers released this week from Latino Decisions show that immigration now tops worries about the economy and jobs as well as education as Latino voters’ main concerns. For the first time in recent months more than half–51 percent–of respondents said immigration reform and the DREAM Act were the most important issues facing the Latino community, while 18 percent of respondents claimed education, and another 18 percent claimed unemployment and job creation were their chief concerns.
Immigration reform advocates say these findings should be instructive for both parties as the country barrels toward the 2012 election season.
"These are remarkable findings. It shows that immigration is the top priority among Latinos, and why this is the case. This issue is personal. It’s about family, future and full acceptance," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, the immigration reform advocacy group.
"Democrats should be concerned about the growing disillusionment among Latino voters regarding the party’s commitment to change in the area of immigration policy. While they’re in much better political position than Republicans, they must deliver on their promises of immigration reforms if they expect Latino voters to deliver for them."
The calls from the immigrant community, and their congressional allies, have been clear. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois has led the Congressional Hispanic Caucus with calls for President Obama to stop the deportation of students who would otherwise be eligible for DREAM Act, which narrowly failed to pass Congress last December.
"The President obviously sees his visit to Puerto Rico as part of a larger Latino voter outreach strategy for 2012, but one of the most important, concrete steps he can take to show Latino voters he is on their side is to stop deporting DREAM Act students," said Gutierrez. "Right away. Today."
"Latinos who turn out in November 2012 are going to vote two to one for Obama," said Louis Desipio, a professor of political science and Chicano and Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. "Obama can take the Latino vote for granted in some sense, but he shouldn’t take turnout for granted."
Desipio said that Latinos will vote in higher numbers in 2012 because of simple demographic shifts, but that it’s unclear whether Obama can or will really leverage the full capacity of the Latino community.
"If Latinos are frustrated in 2012 as they tentatively are now regarding the non-movement on immigration, that might mean a lower increase in turnout. What he needs to do is energize Latino communities to turn out."
This year Obama’s overtures to Latino communities have been a series of speeches and White House gatherings around immigration. Back in May, Obama headed to El Paso, Texas, to give a speech on the need for immigration reform. It left many immigration reform watchers nonplussed. That speech was preceded by a series of White House meetings on immigration in April, one with Latino celebrities like Eva Longoria and America Ferrera and another with what the White House called "immigration stakeholders." However, absent from the meeting were representatives from actual immigrant communities or those who advocate for immigration reform. The White House chose to invite a handful of mayors and governors and executives from Cargill, Facebook and JP Morgan Chase instead.
"While we appreciate the President’s effort to keep immigration reform on the national agenda, his actions belie his intent," Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said at the time. "If the President genuinely wanted to fix the broken immigration system, he would respond to the growing chorus of voices calling for the suspension of the Secure Communities program and move to legalize instead of further criminalize our immigrant communities."
Other immigrant rights advocates agree.
"As of right now, Obama’s speeches are all we have. We have not seen results yet," said Ben Monterroso, the executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a Latino voter outreach group. "But, from the other side all we have is attacks, which are more hurtful than anything else."
"I don’t know if the community is going to just back up Obama just because we don’t have a better alternative," Monterroso added. "I think our community is smarter than that."