New York City, United States – Life in Spanish Harlem is grittier than it is downtown in Manhattan’s skyscraper district. Ahead of this week’s US midterm elections, Latinos here complain of being abandoned by President Barack Obama, whose campaign pledge to reform immigration rules is unfulfilled.
“Before the election, everybody says he will give you something. But when he sits down in the chair, he forgets it,” Jorge Senquis, 45, from Puerto Rico, a US territory, told Al Jazeera. “Obama said he wanted immigration reform, but he don’t do nothing. And the Republicans, they put a block in his way.”
Lower Manhattan boasts trendy cupcake stores and eateries; East Harlem’s streets are lined with pawn shops and fast-food joints. Hispanics here experience higher crime rates, poorer job prospects, and worse schools than people in other parts of New York.
A key issue for Hispanics is the estimated 11.3 million immigrants who are in the US without papers. Many have lived here for years. They are friends and relatives of US citizens, but like many families who have been ripped apart by the system, they live with the reality of being deported if caught.
Hispanics feel they are being taken for granted by Democrats. They've made promises on immigration reform and haven't kept those promises.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 66 percent of Hispanic voters surveyed cited immigration reform as a priority. Many say undocumented immigrants should be offered citizenship, or at least be permitted to work in the US.
Almost five million non-citizens were kicked out of the US from 1996 to 2013. Deportations have increased under Obama, from 418,000 in 2012 to 438,000 in 2013. Hundreds of people perish every year trying to cross the border to reach jobs and relatives in the United States.
In an attempt to stop illegal immigration, the US has spent more than $187bn on drones, armed guards and other forms of border security since the last major immigration overhaul in 1986. Enforcement has not stopped the exodus of people coming from the US’ poorer, less-stable neighbours to the south.
Obama said the US immigration system is “broken” and promised to fix it. Under his plan, some undocumented immigrants could back-pay taxes and a penalty, learn English, and pass a background check so they can “come out of the shadows” with US citizenship.
Taken for granted
Latinos helped Obama, the first non-white US leader, win both his presidential races, with 67 percent of their vote in 2008 and 71 percent when he beat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
But earlier this year, Republicans stalled an immigration reform bill, which featured a 13-year citizenship route for undocumented immigrants and $6bn for border security. Opponents said laws should not reward people who enter the US illegally.
Others warn a soft touch will only encourage more desperate Latin Americans to risk the journey north, with its dangers of “coyote” people-smugglers and rape, kidnappings, and other abuse by criminal gangs.
Obama said he would instead use his executive powers on immigration, then decided to wait until after the midterm elections to do so. After elections, analysts say he could be conservative and boost border security, or bold, and lift the threat of deportation from some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
With reforms delayed, Latino support for Obama’s party has dwindled. Only 57 percent of registered Hispanic voters now back Democrat candidates in their congressional districts, compared with 65 percent in the midterm elections in 2010.
“Hispanics feel they are being taken for granted by Democrats,” Carl Meacham, who runs the Americas programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera. “They’ve made promises on immigration reform, and haven’t kept those promises.”
Residents of Spanish Harlem experience high crime rates and worse job prospects [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
Despite strong feelings among Latinos, immigration is on a political back-burner. Midterm elections are for congressmen and governors – not the White House – and the states with tight races on November 4 tend to have small Hispanic populations.
‘Major demographic transformation’
“The key thing with Latinos is turnout – they punch below their weight,” Kenneth Goldstein, a politics scholar at the University of San Francisco, told Al Jazeera. “When it comes to midterm elections, their drop-off is even more significant.”
Meanwhile, non-Latino Americans were swayed by this year’s upsurge in unaccompanied children heading from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to join relatives in the US – often saying they had fled drug-gang violence and poverty back home.
Conservatives rallied outside crowded Texan detention centres with banners saying: “No illegals.”
“Because of the border crisis, immigration is a net negative for Democrats this cycle,” James Hohmann, an election analyst for the news website Politico, told Al Jazeera. “The nature of the map means that these races are being played out in conservative states.
“To win these races, with a short-term mindset, Republicans have taken a hard line on immigration.”
With neither party pushing immigration reform, Latinos are increasingly dissatisfied with Washington politics. It echoes a broader malaise, in which Americans have low approval ratings for Obama (42 percent) and Congress (12 percent).
While the key Latino issue is shelved, many analysts see change on the horizon.
“Ten years ago, the so-called Hispanic vote was fragmented, idiosyncratic or dependent on an individual’s country of origin,” Gustavo Arnavat, the former US director of the Inter-American Development Bank, told Al Jazeera.
“But the immigration issue has caused Hispanics to feel they are part of an embattled group that needs to stick together.”
The US’ fast-growing Latino and Asian populations represent a “major demographic transformation”, according to the American Immigration Council. From 1996 to 2012, the number of voters who were immigrants or the native-born children of immigrants, rose by 10.6 million, or 143 percent.
If the immigrants were not coming, the United States would stop running. Immigrants do all the jobs for little money.
“The Latinos are here, the South Asians are here. They‘re both increasing. Both are important in the long-term,“ Jefrey Pollock, a pro-Democrat pollster and president of the Global Strategy Group, told Al Jazeera.
“The Republicans have boxed themselves into a permanent problem with black and brown voters with their vehement opposition to immigration reform.“
Back on the agenda
After the midterms, the debate is likely to be reignited by Obama‘s executive action and potential battles with Republicans, who could likely win the Senate, giving them control of both houses during the president‘s final years in office.
Unlike in these midterms, the Latino vote will carry more weight in the 2016 presidential election – putting immigration back on the agenda.
“To have any hope of winning in 2016, Republicans have to make inroads with the Latino vote,“ Matt Barreto, an analyst with the polling group Latino Decisions, told Al Jazeera. “They cannot lose the vote in the same numbers that Romney did and expect to win the White House.“
John Mclaughlin, a Republican pollster, disagreed. He said many Latino voters are natural conservatives and that Obama‘s broken promises on immigration are an opportunity for the right.
“A lot of Hispanics are upset that nothing‘s been done on immigration. They were promised and it hasn‘t happened, and their lives are made miserable,“ he said. “Republicans have huge opportunities to gain Hispanic votes and they‘ve left it on the table, and I think that‘ll change.“
Back in Spanish Harlem, both parties need to work hard to win favour, according to Senquis, who echoes the sentiments of many in his community.
“If the immigrants were not coming, the United States would stop running. Immigrants do all the jobs for little money,“ said Senquis. “The problem is that all politicians do the same – when they‘re elected they forget their promises.“
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl