A Promise Deferred Is a Promise Broken

Latinos expect President Obama and Democrats in Congress to deliver on immigration reform, and no reform may mean no support come election time, writes Henry Fernandez.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) speaks at a rally for immigration reform on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) speaks at a rally for immigration reform on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Author’s note: This article relies in part on polling done by Research 2000 for DailyKos. DailyKos and Research 2000 are now in dispute as to the validity of that polling. For purposes of this article, the Research 2000 polling was used to establish in part that Latino support for Democrats was falling. I am no longer comfortable relying on Research 2000 polling to establish this fact. Gallup polling for the first six months of 2010, however, showed a decline of 12 points in Latino support for Obama. During the same period, Gallup determined that black and white support remained constant. Gallup went further and attributed this decline to inaction on immigration reform. Thus, the points in the article about declining support among Latinos because of perceived inaction on immigration reform are validated by the Gallup polling.

President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have a problem. The large Democratic majorities that delivered the president and both houses of Congress electoral victories were built on a new coalition—and that coalition has at its core Latino voters. Senator Reid’s strong majority in the Senate and also his own re-election in Nevada rely on the Latino vote. But Latino support for Democrats has taken a dive over the last seven months (see graph).

latino support

Let’s go under the hood to understand this collapse of support. President Obama repeatedly stated during his campaign and postelection that he would deal with immigration reform in his first year. Spanish-language media dubbed this "La Promesa de Obama," or "Obama’s Promise." The problem that Obama faces with La Promesa can be witnessed in a September interview of Obama by Jorge Ramos, a Univision news anchor who is watched and trusted by millions of Latino Americans.

But what I wanted to ask you is about what Latinos call, "La Promesa de Obama"—Obama’s promise. On May 28 you told me, and I am quoting, "What I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support." And then I asked again, "in the first year?" And you said, "Yes, in the first year." This is your promise and the question that many of them have is: Are you going to keep your promise? Can you do it before January 20?

La Promesa de Obama was a game changer in the 2008 election. Obama beat McCain in CNN exit polls among Latinos 67 percent to 31 percent, a 36-point spread, while Kerry beat Bush 53 percent to 44 percent, a 9-point spread. In other words, Latinos in one election cycle swung 27 percent. Immigration was key to this swing, with Republicans seen as too often offering hate-filled rhetoric with no responsible solution and Democrats offering an inclusive party with a solution in the form of comprehensive immigration reform and the will to get it done.

How could one issue so drive the nation’s fastest-growing large voting block? Latino voting specialist Bendixen and Associates did large-scale polling of Latinos in May 2009 across the country, and Bendixen’s poll shows how deeply and personally immigration reform matters to Latinos. When asked if they knew an undocumented immigrant personally, 69 percent said yes. Even for those who did not know such a person the impact was still personal, as 75 percent agreed that all Hispanics were facing anti-immigrant sentiment.

The solution? Almost unanimously, 89 percent of Latinos said "Give most of them a path to citizenship," while only 4 percent supported deportation.

As 2009 slipped into 2010 the promise of immigration reform remained unfulfilled. Well-known and respected Latino voices have begun to speak out aggressively. La Opinion, the most-read Spanish language newspaper in America, ran a hard-hitting February 16 editorial that singled out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Obama:

The time for empty words is over…Campaign promises win supporters and build hopes. The proclaimed commitment to immigration reform secured key votes to win the election.

No Latino elected official is more identified publicly with immigration reform than Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who held a series of mass meetings in 2009 at Latino churches around the country to draw attention to the need for immigration reform. Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman from Illinois and a strong Obama supporter for some time, has changed tone dramatically in the last month. Last week, speaking before the National Council of La Raza, he said:

In the [presidential] campaign we were promised comprehensive immigration reform during the president’s first year of his first term. That was then, this is now. Now, we had a State of the Union address in which over 70 minutes were spoken and only two were given to comprehensive immigration reform.

Democrats need to fear that this "broken promise" meme is taking hold. In a Sacramento Bee article entitled "Latinos who backed Obama are frustrated by the lack of immigration overhaul,"California State Sen. Gil Cedillo expressed on February 16:

I think [Obama’s] in danger of breaking the spirit of solidarity and hope. More than a broken promise, it’s the danger of breaking people’s sense of hope in the Latino community.

The same article, syndicated nationally in other newspapers through McClatchy, noted that:

Republican candidates will gain ground from Latinos once Latinos realize "that what the Democrats offer is just a bunch of empty promises," said Hector Barajas, a communications consultant for the California State Senate Republican Caucus. Barajas said the issue had been particularly hot on Spanish talk radio ever since Obama gave that speech [State of the Union without commitment on immigration reform].

A disenchanted Latino electorate’s impact is powerful, and we have already seen it start to play out. According to CNN exit polls, while Latinos were a key part of the Virginia 2008 presidential victory, they were a 40 percent smaller portion of the electorate in the 2009 loss of the Virginia governor’s mansion by Democrats. Even scarier for Democrats is the Massachusetts special election for the seat formerly held by immigration reform zealot Ted Kennedy. According to the Associated Press:

But in Chelsea, Lawrence, and New Bedford, cities with sizable Latino populations that have traditionally voted Democratic, turnout was low. Some residents said they didn’t know—or didn’t care—an election was going on.

The big risk for Democrats in November 2010 is that disenchanted Latinos continue to stay home. Latinos indicated they would do just that in responding to the large national poll done weekly by Research 2000 for Daily Kos:

Immigration reform and Latino civil rights advocates have focused on the broken promises theme and have been ringing the alarms for the White House and congressional leadership for the last couple of months that disenchanted Latinos will exact a toll at the voting booth. Reform Immigration for America plans a large march on Washington on March 21 for immigration rights for new Americans and economic justice for all Americans with the slogan, "March For America, Change Takes Courage." They called their march to "…demand that President Obama and Congress keep their promise."

Tuesday’s Washington Post reports on a press conference by nearly a dozen immigrant rights groups who angrily pointed to the high number of deportations under Obama’s Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement arm and called on the administration and congressional leadership to move forward quickly on a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants:

"Our community is angry. Our members feel betrayed," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We never believed in our wildest dreams that President Obama would have a record like this."

"No legalization. No reelection," Emma Lozano, executive director of the Chicago-based Centro Sin Fronteras, told reporters.

This change of tone appears to be having an effect. As the Los Angeles Times reported in an apparently White House-sourced story on March 4:

Obama took up the issue [immigration reform] privately with his staff Monday in a bid to advance a bill through Congress before lawmakers become too distracted by approaching midterm elections…

Immigration is a delicate issue for the White House. After promising to revamp in his first year of office what many see as a fractured system, Obama risks angering a growing, politically potent Latino constituency if he defers the goal until 2011.

The upshot of these high-level discussions is that President Obama is now scheduling a meeting with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who are leading bipartisan immigration reform talks in the Senate. Later this week the administration is also reaching out to immigration advocates and Latino civil rights groups to meet with senior White House staff. In another encouraging sign, a March 5 La Opinion article citing "various sources involved in the process,"favorably described what is apparently in the Schumer-Graham bill—the first time this bill has gotten public scrutiny. These forward steps are important but unlikely to rebuild Latino electoral energy alone.

In today’s highly partisan political environment much of the president’s agenda relies on the re-election of large Democratic majorities. If Latino voters stay disenchanted and only 33 percent do show up at the polls in November, the president can expect many of his goals to be in jeopardy.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow