06/19/2012 09:20 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

Obama's Immigration Move Puts Pressure On Latino Groups To Deliver In 2012

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."

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