White House

Obama Faces Latino Audience Frustrated Over Immigration

President draws mixed reaction inside and outside an Hispanic Caucus gala.

National Journal
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Rachel Roubein
Oct. 2, 2014, 6:29 p.m.

Out­side the Wash­ing­ton con­ven­tion cen­ter on Thursday night, less than two hours be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama would ap­pear to re­it­er­ate his com­mit­ment to com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, pro­test­ers held signs dub­bing him “De­port­er in Chief.” The act­iv­ists aren’t go­ing away, they chanted. They are here to stay, wait­ing for Obama to keep his word.

In­side the con­ven­tion cen­ter at the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus In­sti­tute’s 37th An­nu­al Awards Gala, Obama ac­know­ledged the deep frus­tra­tion the Latino com­munity feels after he failed to de­liv­er ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion.

“I am not go­ing to give up this fight un­til it gets done,” Obama told the crowd of law­makers, busi­ness and com­munity lead­ers, CHCI fel­lows and more.

It’s rhet­or­ic he’s uttered to the Latino com­munity be­fore, par­tic­u­larly after he an­nounced last month his in­ten­tion to delay ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion un­til after the Novem­ber elec­tion. But mo­ments after he vowed to fight for change, a wo­man whose de­port­a­tion had been de­ferred shouted, “Mr. Pres­id­ent, stop the de­port­a­tions. “¦ We need re­lief now.”

That re­ac­tion il­lus­trated the ten­sion between Obama and the Latino com­munity, which Frank Sharry, of Amer­ica’s Voice, said feels like it was “punched in the stom­ach.”

“There’s mil­lions of people who were count­ing on the pres­id­ent to come through for them, and he did not,” Sharry, Amer­ica’s Voice ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, told Na­tion­al Journ­al, be­fore the event. “And now he’s say­ing, ‘Trust my prom­ise, I’ll do it later.’ There’s a lot of skep­ti­cism.”

This isn’t the first time Obama has pleaded with the Latino com­munity to trust him. As a pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee in 2008, he ad­dressed the same crowd, say­ing it was “time for a pres­id­ent who won’t walk away from com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form when it be­comes polit­ic­ally un­pop­u­lar.”

Again, in 2009, he said he was in of­fice to “rise above the polit­ics.” And in 2010 and 2011, he asked the gala’s crowd and the Latino com­munity to “keep the heat” on him.

And that’s ex­actly what ad­voc­ates and many mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus are do­ing.

Be­fore the pres­id­ent’s speech, Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., told Obama the com­munity is look­ing at him for “big, bold, un­apo­lo­get­ic ad­min­is­trat­ive re­lief for mil­lions.”

“We know we can count on you,” Men­en­dez said.

Obama began his speech try­ing to prove just that. In the six years since he ad­dressed the CHCI gala as a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, the Latino high school dro­pout rate has de­creased. The rate of col­lege en­roll­ment is up 45 per­cent. Poverty among Lati­nos fell, in­comes rose, and mil­lions have re­ceived health in­sur­ance, Obama said.

Yet he ac­know­ledged that some­times, pro­gress has been slower than he wanted. The de­cision to delay ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion, which has been blamed on red-state Demo­crats’ wor­ries about their up­com­ing elec­tions, has been the prom­ise lag­ging be­hind.

But he called on the com­munity to trust him, just like they did in 2008 and again in 2012.

“I’m go­ing to need you to have my back. I’m go­ing to need you to keep put­ting pres­sure on Con­gress, be­cause the fact of the mat­ter is, no mat­ter how bold I am, noth­ing I can do will be as com­pre­hens­ive or last­ing as the Sen­ate bill,” Obama said. The clearest path to change is vot­ing, and ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions are co­ordin­at­ing out­reach ef­forts as some worry a lack of en­thu­si­asm could keep Latino voters away from the polls.

But im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion—not just ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion—can hap­pen, Obama told the crowd. “Si, se puede,” he said. “Yes, we can, if we vote.”

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