WASHINGTON -- After urging the president for years to push for immigration reform and to end some deportations, Latino voters and immigration advocacy groups now want to prove that it was worth the political risk.
The president announced Friday that his administration will grant work authorizations and halt deportation of some undocumented young people, so long as they meet certain criteria such as attending college or joining the military.
It falls short of the reform most advocates wanted -- it can be undone at any time, and there is no path to citizenship for those eligible -- but it's a bigger step than the president has taken before on immigration. But as the election comes closer, many say it will be important to demonstrate that the move also is politically beneficial. Advocates are feeling pressure to successfully flex their electoral muscle amid high expectations for Democrats to win a significant percentage of the Latino vote, especially as the GOP struggles to overcome its disadvantage with Latino voters.
"One of the things that we've been saying for years to Latino voters is, 'Look, you have to vote based on your hopes, your dreams, your agenda, who best speaks to what you want to see happen," said Service Employees International Union Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, who advocates for immigration reform. "When you have a candidate that does this, by god, you need to get out and support him."
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has so far avoided answering whether he would end Obama's policy should he become president.
Latino voters' enthusiasm for the president has dropped significantly since his inauguration. A majority of Latino voters in a December 2011 poll said they opposed the president's deportation record, which quickly surpassed that of predecessor George W. Bush and hit a record high in the Fiscal Year ending September 2011.
But Latinos aren't solely focused on immigration; in most polls, in fact, the issue ranks below the economy, jobs and education in terms of importance. Still, Latino voters as a whole are more supportive of immigration reform, and the Dream Act specifically, than the general population. About half of Latino voters know an undocumented immigrant personally.
"It became an issue of respect, not public policy," Medina said.
As many as 1.4 million undocumented immigrants could benefit from the policy change, according to a report Friday from Pew Hispanic Center.
"One of the strengths, and something that the Obama campaign and especially the Romney campaign did not anticipate is that there is no campaign that can get as close to the Latino electorate than Dreamers, because a lot of the Latino community who are voting, they're our family, they're our friends, they're our loved ones," said Cesar Vargas, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant who works with advocacy group DRM Capitol to press candidates on reform.
But Arturo Vargas, executive director of the non-partisan National Association of Latino Elected Officials, said that while it's always good to bring specific issues into the consciousness of voters, the announcement is not "a total game-changer." It can help the president, but only within a broader set of concerns about other issues, he said.
It would be "insulting" for Obama to campaign solely on immigration to Latino voters, said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the right-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network. She previously worked toward immigration reform as part of the Bush administration, but said she has concerns with how and when Obama made his directive.
"I think that for the majority of Hispanics, they see this as a political thing," she said. "If he goes at this too hard, he will have lost whatever gains that he made because he did this."
Obama's deportation announcement could mobilize Latino voters who otherwise would have stayed home, supporters of the policy change said.
"If [Obama] continues to take these types of steps he's going to surely get a very strong showing in terms of turnout, in terms of support, in terms of energy level," Arturo Carmona, executive director of Latino group Presente.org, said. The organization is already hearing from members saying they are more excited to work toward the president's reelection.
Since the election is still more than four months away, there is time for enthusiasm to wane. But Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has pressed the president to take bolder action to stop deportations, said he thinks Latino voters will continue to be encouraged as they see undocumented young people actually benefit from the policy change.
Beyond November, it is still important to show lawmakers that policies benefiting undocumented immigrants don't amount to political suicide, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, which pushes for reform of the immigration system. The election could be a turning point, where Republicans closer to the center feel able to support of legislation that would help the undocumented population, he said.
"If Obama wins, and the Latino vote is consequential in that win, it means that Republicans are going to have to sue for peace with Latinos and sue for peace on immigration reform," he said. "They're going to stand up to the loud, but not large, nativist wing of the party."
Below, the GOP delves into Latino politics:
If not the most memorable moment of the run-up to the Florida GOP primary, the most comical one had to be Mitt Romney's oxymoronic addition to the English language: self-deportation. At a Florida debate and in response to a question regarding if whether to enforce his position on illegal immigration, he would support mass deportations, Romney answered "Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here." Romney's use of the term 'self-deportation' and his genuine belief in it as a viable means to deal with the 13 million undocumented immigrants who would not be allowed to remain in the U.S., led to substantial social media outcry, an attack by his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich (to be expected), and a measure of agreement from fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Amazing.
Newt Gingrich didn't waste any time in 2012. In early January, he visited Little Havana's Café Versailles restaurant, a traditional stop for politicians looking to rally support among Miami's Cuban-American population. Gingrich drank Cuban coffee and conversed with the restaurant staff, who by now must be used to politicians stopping by to score points among Latino voters. Strangely enough, they applauded once he was finished with his coffee. GIngrich didn't miss a beat and told his audience how President of the U.S. his goal will be "to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring." He also talked about this stance on immigration, which he qualifies as more "humane" than the positions of his GOP primary opponents. Nothing like spicy politicking to go with your café con leche.
An crucial moment in the Florida race was the endorsement of Mitt Romney by Florida's self-proclaimed "three amigos," Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Herald calls this the "ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta." But this too led to controversy as these three Cuban-American politicians who now support Romney's candidacy -- and its conservative approach to immigration reform and threatened DREAM act veto -- have track records as advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act. "Those three in particular have had a history of supporting measures like the DREAM Act ... but everyone wants stability in the Republican party and they likely think Romney is the most likely to provide that," said Kristian Ramos, a policy director at the NDN & New Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank to The Huffington Post. In the 2008 primary the trio endorsed Sen. John McCain -- over Romney -- due in part to his own advocacy for immigration reform.
A new generation of Latino leaders is emerging in Florida politics. Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio, is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in this new emerging political group. "Obviously, probably Marco Rubio is on the top of the list in terms of young Hispanics leading the effort in the state," conservative activist Jeb Bush Jr., the son of Florida's former governor and nephew of former President George W. Bush, told The Huffington Post. Rubio's name comes up in every list of possible vice presidential candidates. Thus far, however, he has remained neutral in the primary race. Other Latinos who are gaining influence in Florida's Republican and conservative circles include Rep. David Rivera, who's backing cNewt Gingrich, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera and state Rep. Erik Fresen.
Last Thursday's GOP debate confirmed that the Latino vote is a dominant factor in the Florida primary. From the earliest moments of the debate, issues such as immigration reform, the DREAM Act, relations with Cuba, Puerto Rico's status, Latinos who could serve in a Republican Cabinet, and more were catnip to the candidates who were each seeking to wow the audience. Gingrich stood strong in his attack that Romney is the most "anti-immigrant" candidate in the GOP race. Romney defended himself by calling the comments "inflammatory and inappropriate." Romney then went on to criticize a Gingrich TV ad as an example of "over the top rhetoric." The debate turned to focus on Cuba a few times, with Romney saying, "It is time for us to strike for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president." Gingrich, who had appeared earlier at Florida International University, reiterated his support for a 'Cuban Spring' if he is elected president.
In an effort to win the Latino vote, Newt Gingrich came out with a radio ad in Spanish perfectly attuned to the local audience in his reiterated stance against the Castro brothers' regime in Cuba. Comically, the ad also tried to associate Mitt Romney to the local hatred of Cuba's regime, by criticizing Romney's 2008 use of a phrase often associated with Fidel Castro, "patria o muerte, venceremos," which translates to "fatherland or death, we shall overcome." But, perhaps aware that further down the road, other Latino voters will be more interested in immigration reform than Cuban relations, Gingrich went for broke and labeled Mitt Romney as 'anti-immigrant' in the ad.
While campaigning in Hialeah, Florida, Romney gave the crowd what they wanted to hear, speaking forcefully of the need to defeat the current dictators in Cuba and Venezuela. So far, so good. But then he asked his young son, Craig, to speak to the mostly Cuban-American crowd in Spanish. Stepping up to the mic, Craig said, "Mi papá no habla español."
At January's Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami, both Gingrich and Romney delivered speeches with the express aim of attracting the conservative Latino voter, specifically Florida's Cuban-Americans. Romney spoke passionately about freedom, which is a key issue for Cubans in the U.S. given that so many fled the authoritarian Castro regime in Cuba. Gingrich also spoke about freedom, and tried to outdo Romney with his vocal support for a 'Cuban spring' and regime change in the island some 90 miles away.
Distancing himself from the harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric that's characterized this year's Republican primaries, Ron Paul voiced a clear and more compassionate view regarding the subject during a conference in Nevada, where the Texas congressman said he favors a policy that doesn't rely on "barbed-wire fences and guns on our border." Paul criticized politicians for blaming immigrants for the current economic situation in the country. "When things go badly, individuals look for scapegoats," Paul said according to the Huffington Post. "Hispanics, the immigrants who have come in, are being used as scapegoats." He went on to compare the current anti-immigrant rhetoric to Nazi Germany's targeting of Jews in the 1930s. Paul said he was against laws that would require people to carry around identity papers to prove their legal status in the country.
In an interview with Univision, Sen. John McCain said that Republican candidates should adopt a "very humane approach" to immigration in order to secure Latino votes. McCain, who endorsed Mitt Romney earlier this year has since distanced himself from the candidate's stance on immigration and even publicly criticized Romney's "self-deportation" plan. McCain, like Romney, opposes the DREAM Act.
Romney named former Governor Pete Wilson-- a well known immigration hard-liner-- as Honorary Chairman of his California campaign. "I'm honored to have Governor Pete Wilson's support, because he's one of California's most accomplished leaders," Romney said on his website as reported by Fox News Latino. "As governor of California from 1991 to 1999, he led California from the depths of recession to prosperous economic recovery." But former Gov. Wilson is not only remembered for his economic policies, but also for his hostile stance against undocumented immigrants in the mid 90s. Wilson supported Proposition 187 in 1994, which essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state's economy. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. Prop 187 was ultimately blocked by federal court.