Charlotte, NC – At the same moment Latino mayor Julian Castro made history on Tuesday by giving the keynote address for President Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, a group of activists was sitting in a nearby jail for a street protest against the president’s treatment of undocumented immigrants.
In June, Obama launched the Deferred Action programme, a stop-gap measure that provides temporary relief from deportation and could allow as many as two million young people to remain in the US. Over the past four years, however, Obama has deported more than one million undocumented immigrants, more than any other president.
Stark contradictions like these are only part of Obama’s Latino paradox; a counterintuitive scenario that has secured the president the default support of the nation’s king-making, 50-million-strong Latino community – without, experts say, addressing its most pressing problems.
As the presidential vote approaches, some Latino leaders are not amused.
“This election is a huge challenge for the Latino community. There is clearly elation among some young people because of Deferred Action, but at the same time there is the record of what he has done. What he has put into practice, is not what he has claimed he would do. There is a lot of uneasiness and questioning about support for Obama,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago-based policy and advocacy group.
“He has deported 400,000 people each year for the last four years, about 1.2 million people. This has had a devastating impact on people’s lives. Everybody I know knows someone who has been deported.”
On Obama’s record, analysts and Latino leaders who spoke to Al Jazeera ran down a long list of false hopes and faint overtures, especially on immigration reform.
“In 2008, he stated that broken families were not acceptable to him and that he would work to stop those [the] destruction and deportations of families by providing a path to legalisation to undocumented long-term residents who were eligible and had no serious record. Latino voters believed him,” said Amalia Pallares, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“We cannot yet speak of any important and permanent policy gain in the area of immigration that is about integration and legalisation, although there have been many that have led to more enforcement, punishment and deportation.
“If [Obama’s presidency] ended today, his legacy would be extraordinarily limited.”
Experts say Obama must win a massive victory in the Latino vote to secure a second term. Low voter turnout is the biggest fear.
Ahead of the convention in Charlotte, the Obama camp was aggressive in lining up prominent Latino figures. On Wednesday night, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will have a leading role in proceedings, introducing Vice-President Joe Biden, among other duties. Alejandra Salinas, the first ever Latina president of the College Democrats, will give a two-minute speech the same night and actress and Latina activist Eva Longoria will also speak.
On the convention’s opening night, Charles Gonzalez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, listed off a number of accomplishments of the current administration. Other officials pointed out that this year’s convention will have more Latino delegates, 800 out of 6,000, than any other in history.
“Under President Barack Obama, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been invited to the White House and given a seat at the table. Hispanics are serving in unprecedented numbers at the highest levels of this administration, including the Cabinet,” Gonzalez said on Tuesday.
According to analysts, the boldest move was the choice of Castro, the 37-year-old mayor of San Antonio, Texas, to be the first Latino to give the opening speech at the convention of a major US political party.
For some Latinos, however, the inclusion of Latino voices may be a move to divert attention from a growing sense of dissatisfaction from this critical voting bloc.
“I think Obama definitely is pandering to Latinos. He took the young Latino, who presented himself as an ethnic; different but also an American, a hard-working family man, religious. He even mentioned the menudo cook-off,” said Ernesto Chavez, professor of history at the University of Texas, El Paso, and author of Mi Raza Primero! [“My People First!”], referring to Castro’s speech.
| Spotlight on Obama immigration policy
“It was good delivery, but not charismatic the way Obama was. I don’t think it’s launching [Castro’s] career, and voters won’t be that excited. Obama is in electoral politics mode, he’s playing it safe.”
Obama’s camp points to other firsts from the Latino community. Sonia Sotomayor was appointed by the president to the Supreme Court, and Katerine Archuleta was the first Latina to serve as political director for a presidential campaign.
Puente says that any move to lure Latino votes is less about personalities than pure demographics. In her words, it’s a “no-brainer”.
“Irrespective of Julian Castro, do the math. Look at the demographics now and see what they look like in ten years,” she said.
According to US Census figures, the nation’s Latino population increased 43 per cent between 2000 and 2010. An estimated 26 per cent more Latinos will vote this year than in 2008.
“There are two major demographic trends in the country right now; aging baby-boomers who are primarily white and not having any more children, and the young, fast-growing Latino population. One-in-four children born in the United States right now is a Latino child, and this is true across the nation,” said Puente.
“It’s a no-brainer that the Latino vote is coming of age and is going to play a critical role in this election and every election to come.”
If Obama’s record on touchstone Latino issues is so allegedly poor, why does he retain their overwhelming support? For one thing, observers say, he’s not Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
“Obama is in no way focusing on issues important to us. Immigration reform and deportation, more than anything else, is turning a lot of people off. On his record alone, he wouldn’t do that well, but his opponent isn’t doing anything affirmative for Latinos, and [the Republicans] have supported the anti-immigration efforts that Arizona and other places have put forward,” said Chavez.
The Romney card, and the Republican track record on immigration issues, have been major talking points this week among Latino delegates.
In his remarks to the Hispanic caucus, Gonzalez said: “When it comes to our country’s immigration policies, the truth is that Mitt Romney has embraced the racial profiling policies of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The truth is he would separate families that have been here for generations. The truth is he has embraced distrust and division at the expense of American values.”
In her previous writings, Puente has called the Republicans’ talk of “electric fences and self-deportation” insulting.
“It becomes a question of what poison you want to take. The one where you’re electrocuted, to use [the Republican] example, or the one where you could be deported even though the administration says it is putting policies in place so you can’t,” she said.
For Pallares, Puente and other Latino leaders, the election debate and the focus on immigration reform has overshadowed other issues facing the Latino community.
“Latinos are concerned about health care, education, housing, employment, and of course immigration, which is the most salient one. In terms of education, I think Latinos, who have an important proportion of their population in the K-12 public system, are still struggling for better access to educational opportunities and resources for their children,” said Pallares.
“We must also think about gun control and US control of gun and drug smuggling across the border as Latino policy because it increases crime in many Latino neigbourhoods and has led to 50,000 deaths and disappearances in Mexico, which affects their family members in the US as well as migrants who travel back to Mexico to visit.”
In the end, it may be the protesters who were, on Tuesday night, locked up in the Mecklenburg County Jail who struck the most positive note about the challenges ahead for Obama as he seeks to re-engage with the US Latino community.
In a press release after their arrest, the undocumented activists with the UnDocubus movement wrote:
“We know that President Obama’s legacy on immigration is undecided. We want him to be on the right side of history… We want him to be remembered as the one who found the way to include the millions struggling for a better life in this country, not to be remembered as the president who deported more people than anyone else in the history of the country.”