In July 2008, Sen. Barack Obama took time out of his packed presidential campaign schedule to address a crucial block of voters whom he would need in his fight against Sen. John McCain in the November elections.
During his speech to the League of Latin American Citizens
, a leading Latino organization, Obama lamented the lack of presidential leadership on immigration reform in 2006, and promised to do better.
"We need a president who isn't going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive immigration reform when it becomes politically unpopular," he told the group. "That's the commitment I'm making to you. I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as president."
But after Obama's victorious presidential campaign, in which he won with 67 percent of the Latino vote, immigration advocates say they are still waiting for the results that Obama promised them 18 months ago. And their patience is wearing thin.
"There is a palpable, grassroots anger that is going to go national if there is not a breakthrough soon," said Frank Sherry, the founder of America's Voices, a group that advocates immigration reform. "If there's not, I think the effort to pass legislation will become akin to a social movement to raise the moral stakes of 11 million people living in the country with no meaningful rights."
Other Latino leaders and immigration advocates say they understood that the president had to deal first with the economic crisis that confronted him when he came into office, and even that he chose to address health care reform as his next domestic priority. But in interviews with Politics Daily, several said they believe that some Democrats are slow-walking reform to avoid dealing with the politically hot-button issue.
"I think there's a bit of this Rahm Emanuel kind of mentality, where they think that immigration reform is a liability for Democrats who would rather not take a tough vote," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the LULAC group that Obama addressed in 2008. "They think that as long as they think they can keep the immigrant community mollified, they can just put it off without delivering on that promise."
Wilkes joined more than half a dozen fellow immigration advocates at a Washington, D.C., press conference Monday with a message for a White House they feel has been long on promises and short on results.
"The message to Democrats is that they need to deliver in order to have a shot at maintaining support from the Latino community," said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns National Council of La Raza. "Addressing reform is essential for Republicans as well if they have any interest in repairing their relationship with the fastest growing portion of the American electorate."
Activists are planning a march for immigration reform
on March 21 on the National Mall to call for comprehensive immigration reform. Leaders of the reform community recently informed the White House that they had a choice: The march could be a civil rights protest to decry Obama's lack of follow-through on the issue, or it could be a community rally to urge Americans to support the president's efforts to pass a bill. The catch, they told the White House, was that he needed to move on something.
So Obama called Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) to the White House for a meeting Monday, which deputy press secretary Bill Burton said would be for the senators to update the president on where things stand on the issue.
According to several people with knowledge of progress on the matter, Schumer is working on a measure that would have the broad contours of the immigration reform bills from 2006 and 2007, including what has been termed a "path to citizenship" for undocumented workers. Although Graham has signaled his support for the concept, Schumer is working to get a second Republican on board before moving forward. The House will not act at all until the Senate passes its bill.
Among the details being discussed for the Schumer-Graham effort are a Schumer plan to create a forgery-proof national identification card, a non-partisan commission to recommend a process for issuing visas, and eliminating the "touch back" provision from previous bills that required illegal immigrants to leave the country before they could begin the legalization process.
LULAC's Wilkes warned that that any efforts to pass legislation this year need to be a bona fide commitment to build a coalition, not just an election-year attempt to check a box for an interest group. "We don't want them to make a half-hearted effort just to say they did it," he said. "We need to see a real effort at reform and only that can quiet the voices that will show up March 21."
NCLR's Martinez said: "For the Latino community, the word in 2010 is accountability. Our perspective is that this issue has been debated many times over the years. The country has been waiting for the system to be overhauled for 20 years. For Latinos in particular, we will regard as complicit those who stand on the sidelines, as well as those who are actively trying to obstruct progress."
The danger for both parties in ignoring the issue and depressing Latino voter turnout in 2010 is considerable, but for Democrats trying to hold onto control of the House and Senate, the peril is acute. Activists say Latinos were key to Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, and have the power to swing crucial states in 2010.
"There are likely to be close races in California, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, New York and Florida, in which the Latino vote -- and whether it turns out or not -- could determine whether Democrats keep control of the Senate or not," Frank Sherry said. "And when smart politicos say we better not do what the Latinos want because it might hurt our 2010 prospects, they seem to have failed to notice that dramatic demographic changes have changed that electorate."