Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Dreams deferred: Latino voters caught between reform and realpolitik

In run-up to midterm elections, advocates for change in immigration law disappointed by postponement of executive action

Immigration rights advocates have loudly expressed anger, frustration and betrayal this week after President Barack Obama reneged on a promise and delayed taking executive action on immigration reform until after the midterm elections.

The move was widely seen as political gamesmanship to avoid jeopardizing the Democratic majority in the Senate. But the elections are still around the corner, and the vocal groups crying foul now face the monumental task of going back to knock on doors to mobilize the Latino vote after this resounding defeat.

“It’s hard,” said Sonia Marquez, northern director for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “It’s like a huge slap in the face.”

The challenge is daunting now that deportation relief for undocumented immigrants — a key issue for Latino voters, young and old, liberal and conservative — is off the table for at least a few months. So activists are facing a tough question: What do they do? How do they inspire Latinos who never show up in big numbers in midterm contests anyway to cast their ballots? And for whom should Latinos vote? For the Democrats who did little to advance immigration reform or for Republicans who outright opposed it?

“That’s the million-dollar question now,” Marquez said. “It’s certainly making our job a lot harder.”

Many activists think it may come down to a lesser-of-two-evils strategy. Latino groups are keeping get-out-the-vote efforts focused on 2014 now but with a longer-range objective in mind. “This November is one more time to get our people out to vote,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota. If they don’t make a difference in 2014, they will in 2016, he said.

“I’m not going to tell the community who to vote for,” he said. “They’re very smart. We’re going to participate, and we’re going to make sure that if you’re elected again by us that you remember that the same way we elected you, we can deselect you.”

Mi Familia Vote is resuming voter registration drives next week and scheduling candidate debates in Arizona and Texas. “This may be off the table for politicians and may be off the table for the administration, but it’s not off the table for our community,” Monterroso said. “We continue working.”

On Tuesday the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition organized a protest outside the Denver office of Sen. Michael Bennet, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year. His term is not up, but fellow Colorado Democrat Sen. Mark Udall faces a tough re-election race that could hinge on the Latino vote. So why protest Bennet and not Udall?

“Udall came out with a statement expressing his frustration with the fact that Congress didn’t get anything done and the president didn’t move forward,” Marquez said.

Not a rousing endorsement, but immigrant rights activists say they have to forge ahead and look at candidates’ voting records on immigration issues. Udall was in favor of reform. And it makes more political sense to target Democrats who are not running the risk of losing their seat this year.

“For us, this matter is about the issue, and it isn’t about the political party and candidate,” she said. “It’s about doing the right thing.”

Activists are reconvening to rally the troops in light of the immigration fiasco. “It’s ironic because both parties bear equal responsibility for where we are,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Can this anger and frustration be channeled to get people to turn out and vote?’’

Just two months before the elections, this setback will have a dampening effect on Latino voter turnout, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of California at Riverside.

“But the likelihood of a backlash was greater if the president had gone ahead,” he said. “There aren’t as many states in 2014 where Latino and immigrant voting power would’ve made a huge difference.”

‘The likelihood of a backlash was greater if the president had gone ahead. There aren’t as many states in 2014 where Latino and immigrant voting power would’ve made a huge difference.’

Karthick Ramakrishnan

political science professor, UC Riverside

The recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America has riled conservatives and makes any type of immigration reform toxic for Democrats, Ramakrishnan said. “The public support was no longer guaranteed,” he said. “Acting now would’ve been a net negative.”

And it’s not clear if Latinos would have rushed to the polls even if the president had issued an executive order on immigration. Polls may show that some are now less enthusiastic, but “the presence of Latino voters is relatively low,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center.

Latinos make up no more than 5 percent of eligible voters in eight of the nine states with close Senate races, he said. The exception is Colorado, where 14 percent of eligible voters are Latinos.

No matter how many Hispanic voters stay home because they’re no longer inspired to vote, their absolute turnout is still likely to be larger than in the 2010 midterms. “We will probably see a record turnout of Hispanic voters just because of growth,” Lopez said. “In 2010, 21.3 million were eligible to vote, and 6.6 million voted. This year, 25.2 million are eligible. If it’s the same voter turnout [percentage], that would be 7.9 million voters.”

The Latino vote is not the only thing that matters, Ramakrishnan said.

“The president and Democratic national party leaders were more concerned about losing in states like Minnesota,” he said. That’s a state with a significant immigrant vote, but “they were more concerned with a backlash from white conservatives and white independents.”

Marquez said Latinos can’t forget the strides they’ve made in Colorado, which last month allowed undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and ID cards. Earlier this year, a strict anti-immigration law enacted in 2006 was repealed.

“We’ve come out, and we’ve come out strong and got things changed,” she said. “Yeah, we’ve had shots taken at us, but when I’m knocking on doors the next few months, that’s going to be my message. We just need to prepare and mobilize voters. It’s the only way to show power. We have to grow, and we have to continue to flex political muscle. But this is certainly making our job a lot harder.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter