GOP hopes to capitalize on Latino disappointment with Obama

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — As one of the first Latinos in the nation to endorse Barack Obama, Democratic state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo of Los Angeles campaigned hard for the president, but he's disappointed now.

The reason: Obama has yet to do anything on a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, as he promised to do when he ran for president.

"I think he's in danger of breaking the spirit of solidarity and hope," Cedillo said. "More than a broken promise, it's the danger of breaking people's sense of hope in the Latino community."

While the president carried the Latino vote by large margins 15 months ago, many Republicans are out to capitalize on Latino dissatisfaction with Obama and Washington's Democratic leaders. They think that could help them immensely in the 2010 elections.

Republican candidates will gain ground from Latinos once Latinos realize "that what the Democrats offer is just a bunch of empty promises," said Hector Barajas, a communications consultant for the California State Senate Republican Caucus.

He noted that the president spent only about 10 seconds on immigration at the very end of his State of the Union speech last month. Barajas said the issue had been particularly hot on Spanish talk radio ever since Obama gave that speech.

"It's what didn't happen," Barajas said. "I mean, he spent more time talking about gays in the military than he did about providing some immigration reform plan."

The White House said that it remained committed to passing a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.

White House spokesman Adam Abrams said the president wanted to sign a bill that strengthened border enforcement and cracked down on employers "who exploit undocumented workers to undercut American workers." He also said the president wanted to resolve the status of 12 million people who were in the U.S. illegally, "that they should have to register, pay a penalty for breaking the law and meet other obligations of legal immigrants such as paying taxes, or leave the country."

"The president told members of both parties that if they can fashion a plan to deal with these problems, he is eager to work with them to get it done," Abrams said.

Jaime Regalado, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute, a nonprofit public-policy center at California State University, Los Angeles, said that Democrats, particularly the president, faced "a scary situation."

"It's really a colossal hassle for the administration, that there is so much impatience from so many groups — including Latinos — that are hellbent on having an immigration reform package in 2010, an election year," he said. "It's difficult in any season in any year, but this is a very precarious year for Obama."

Regalado said Republicans were exploiting the issue "with good reason," because it was a no-win situation for Democrats: They lose votes from Latinos if they don't come up with a comprehensive solution to immigration, or they lose votes from more conservative members of their base if they do.

"It's fraught with political peril," he said. "There's no question about that."

Cedillo, who campaigned for Obama in California, Texas and Nevada and debated on his behalf on Spanish radio, said the president and Democratic leaders needed to show Latinos that they were committed to them "not only during the campaign, but after the election."

He predicted that Latinos will provide the determining vote in every upcoming presidential election. Obama was hugely popular among Latinos, receiving 75 percent of the more than 10 million votes they cast in the 2008 presidential election.

Latinos are gearing up to be big players this fall. Earlier this month, a report by America's Voice, a group that backs new comprehensive immigration policies, said that immigration could be the deciding factor in as many as 40 congressional races in November.

Noting the electoral strength of Latinos, Cedillo said: "I would be concerned if I was the White House, if I was a member of Congress."

Immigration has taken a back seat to a host of tough issues for Obama, including two wars, the struggling economy and a yearlong effort to get Congress to pass a health care overhaul. The president's defenders say that it would be politically impossible to add the volatile issue of immigration to the mix right now.

Cedillo doesn't buy that argument. He said the president knew that he'd be dealing with other big issues when he made the promises to the Latino community during the campaign.

"Those were the conditions that he was campaigning under," Cedillo said. "It's not like those were surprises. ... I was so proud of him, at how firm and clear he was in those presidential debates. He really provided leadership."

Barajas said Latinos recognized that it had been a tough year for Obama and an immigration plan might not be fully implemented immediately, but he said there wasn't even a plan for proceeding, let alone introducing legislation.

"I think the Democratic Party needs to wake up and realize that you can only fool the Latino community for so long," Barajas said. "There's a great sense of frustration, there's a great sense of anger and there's a big letdown" that will drive more Latinos to the Republican Party.

Regalado said he didn't believe that Democrats would switch to the Republican Party in big numbers. "What it does threaten is that Latinos stay home" on Election Day, he said.

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