Anatomy of an Immigration Debate: Presidential Carne Asada at NCLR

Latinos are often described as a "friendly" audience for Democrats and Barack Obama. Therefore it was surprising when the President threw out some "red meat" to rev up the simpaticos at the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza in Washington, DC.

Instead: Sizzle!  It, and he, got a little scorched, in effect turning some of that red meat into carne asada.

President Barack Obama at the NCLR 2011 Annual Conference

The President began and focused on the federal debt ceiling, economy recovery, and jobs, a strong indication that contrary to what his opponents say, Obama has his finger on the pulse of Americans' anxieties.  This week's Quinnipiac University survey of Ohio shows that 58% of voters polled disapprove of the President's handling of the economy, even though the Buckeye state's unemployment rate decreased to 8.6% from 10.6% in February of 2010.  Going into the 2012 election, you can interpret this as the President's Achilles' heel: if surveyed Ohioans are upset with the dearth of jobs, imagine the country: the national unemployment rate has dropped an anemic 0.5 points from 9.7 to 9.2%.

The President did not get to immigration--the issue most identified with Latinos--until about 15 minutes into his speech.  His protests that he can't change the laws or that he needs Congressional leadership (he does) were met with revolt.  Some in the crowd interrupted Obama with chants of "Yes You Can," a direct dig and twist of his 2008 campaign slogan "Yes We Can" which can be traced to "Sí Se Puede," Cesar Chavez's call to action when he began organizing farm workers in the 1960s.  Nearly 20 DREAMers (a term that defines students and service members brought illegally to the U.S. as children, and risk or are in the process of being deported, but hope for citizenship if the DREAM Act passes) wore T-shirts with this message “Obama Deports DREAMers”.  Indeed, this is the moment when the pent-up frustration, fear, and disappointment of broken promises burned some of the red meat and the President who threw it on the grill.

DREAMers at NCLR conference

Interestingly, a straw poll conducted by NCLR revealed that 45% of attendees surveyed consider immigration a top issue affecting Latinos.  Although I'm skeptical of straw polls (Mitt Romney won the historic Ame's Straw Poll in Iowa only to lose the 2008 Republican nomination to Senator John McCain), these results reveal the complexity of Hispanic voters: they are not a "one trick"--in this case immigration--pony.  Hispanics care about jobs, education, health care, social security, topics the President amply discussed.  But here's the rub: Latino voters--a complex and slippery voting block because of its diversity and historic low turnout--put a premium on immigration reform because the xenophobic tenor of the debate negatively impacts us all--legal, illegal, sixth generation New Mexican; whether we're Cuban and automatically get asylum when the foot touches U.S. soil or university-educated South Americans pursuing graduate degrees in U.S. universities.  New Jersey ending health insurance for legal, payroll, tax-paying immigrants is just one example of governmental and personal initiatives that target and discriminate against all immigrants, and in broad strokes, Latinos.

I interviewed Jorge Ramos in 2009 for ABC News about Obama's appearance on Al Punto, the first time a U.S. President went on a Spanish-language Sunday public affairs shows.  When I asked Jorge about Latinos' dissatisfaction with Obama for failing to deliver immigration reform within his first year, the anchor and host said that while the leader of the free world needs Hispanics to win in 2012, they need him: "The only hope for twelve million undocumented workers is Barack Obama."

The fact that Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich--potential 2012 GOP nominees--declined NCLR's invitation seems to prove this point.  Then again, if they had shown face, the backdraft from an audience, exhausted with being vilified by factions of the Republican party, may have charred them into beef jerky.

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