Dear President Obama: Five ideas for winning the Latino vote
I was thrilled to be asked by my friend Arianna to contribute to the debut of HuffPost Latino, and I can think of no more apropos topic for a site that loves politics than the 2012 presidential election.
The presidential season is just underway and we’re already starting to hear a lot about the Latino vote. For good reason: Latinos were decisive in both of George W. Bush’s wins and pushed Barack Obama over the top in 2012. We all know that Florida — which went for President Obama in 2008 — has a lot of Latino voters, but it was news three years ago that states like Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania swung blue when Latinos turned out to vote in record numbers and voted Democratic. The 2012 census put an exclamation point on the Latino vote by showing that we’re not just in New York, Texas, and California: Georgia, Utah, North Carolina, and South Carolina are all gaining congressional seats because of the growth of the Latino population there. In fact, remember how John Edwards always talked about growing up in a mill town in South Carolina? Well, that traditional old town is now 50% Latino.
It’s well known inside the Beltway that the Latino vote could make or break President Obama’s re-election, and soon it’ll be national news. By then, it may just be too late for the president to win back Latinos. You see, President Obama inspired Latinos last time around with his immigrant heritage and compassion for the underdog. But Latinos today feel under siege — by Tea Partiers, anti-immigrant groups, and a national sentiment that seems to equate “Latino” with “illegal.” And, after three years in office, there’s been little or no movement on issues important to Latinos and almost no recognition from the White House of the growing importance of our community or the pressures we feel.
So here are 5 ideas for how President Obama can finally show the commitment Latinos have been waiting for and get re-elected by a wave of Latino support:
1. Rebuild the Voter Registration Infrastructure
Ok, it’s inside baseball and it’s not sexy. But there are some realities about 2012 that are just different from 2008 and the president’s campaign needs to accept them, fast. One is that Latinos have been especially hard hit by the foreclosure crisis and millions are not in the same homes where they registered to vote last time around. The New Organizing Institute estimates that 18 million voters need to be re-registered because they’ve moved or lost their home, and Latinos are disproportionately represented in this group.
Now that ACORN — an organization responsible for a significant percentage of the voter registration of African-Americans and Latino Americans — has been defunded by Congress, there’s a big hole in the voter registration infrastructure that could hit President Obama’s campaign particularly hard. Groups like ours — Voto Latino — are doing our best to fill the gap, but with millions of people homeless or living in motels, what’s needed is a voter registration campaign of historic proportions. And don’t forget that the database of newly registered voters the Obama campaign created in 2008 won’t be so useful for Get-Out-The-Vote efforts if it’s now well out-of-date.
2. Challenge the Voter ID Laws
Voter ID laws vary by state, but in general they require voters to produce identification when they show up to vote. Seems reasonable, right? But how many folks who’ve lost their home and are working two jobs can afford to stand in line at the DMV months in advance of the election to fork over money they don’t have to get an ID just to vote? And what about people with disabilities, students, older people, and city dwellers who don’t drive? The Brennan Center at NYU says as many as 12% of eligible voters don’t have the IDs needed to vote, so we’re talking about disenfranchising millions of American citizens.
So far, some 33 states have introduced nefarious Voter ID laws and 14 of those states have passed the laws. In July, sixteen U.S. Senators led by Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado sent a letter to the Department of Justice expressing concern and asking the department to investigate potentially serious violations of the Voting Rights Act by Republican-led state legislatures. Now is the time for the Obama administration to direct the Department of Justice to challenge these laws in court. It’s not just that the voter ID laws could cost President Obama his re-election; it’s simply wrong to stop American citizens from exercising their right to vote.
3. Call the Republican Bluff on Immigration
Speaker John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell have gone after the president for politically posturing around immigration reform but not doing anything about it. As an example, in May they both chided the president for inviting Mayor Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Francisco, and Eva Longoria to the White House to discuss immigration reform, without extending an invitation to Congress, the legislative body that can actually solve the issue. So far, the president has done little to fight back, feeling caught between a Republican Congress that won’t pass immigration reform and a re-election campaign where he needs Latinos and moderates to win.
While it’s true immigration reform is unlikely to pass in the current political climate, it doesn’t mean President Obama can’t call the Republicans’ bluff. It’s time the president organizes a major White House Summit on Immigration, with invitations to all the leaders of Congress. He can use this venue to press the case for sensible comprehensive immigration reform — like the DREAM Act and the reform bill former President George W. Bush supported — while calling the Republican Congressional leaders to account. Sure, it’s unlikely we’ll get anything passed, but it’s high time that leaders were made to stand forward and put their name on the line for or against immigration reform. The 2012 election will help sort them out.
4. Stop Deportations
Here’s something few Americans are aware of: President Obama has deported more people each year than President Bush. So far, this president has deported over one million people in just three years; President Bush deported 1.3 million over eight years.
With one million deportations, these are clearly not targeted at hardened criminals. We’re talking about grandmothers, students, and laborers. There are many cases of the families of veterans and even active duty soldiers being deported.
President Obama is on his way to being known as the Deportation President in the Latino community. But he still has an option to raise the temperature on this issue and make it clear to the American people that he has a line he won’t cross. He can do that by unilaterally declaring that he will cease all deportations (except for those of real criminals) until Congress passes new immigration legislation. He has the legal power to do it; the only question is if he has the political will. Doing so would show moderate voters that he has done his part by better securing the border and deporting one million people, and he would show those of us who care about immigrants and know the system is broken that he will do what it takes to force Congress to act.
5. The Big Speech
President Obama is a legendary orator. Believe me, the Latino community needs his inspiration now more than ever. We’re feeling beat up and beat down (sadly, I mean that literally in a sense: the FBI says hate crimes against Latinos are up 45% since 2003). And we’re ready for the president to tell us that he understands what we’re going through and is committed to our community.
Let’s not forget that 60% of the 50 million Latinos in America were born in the US. We are first-and-foremost Americans. But we feel increasingly like we are being marginalized and alienated from the mainstream of America by the vicious rhetoric and racial profiling laws around us.
Just as the president brilliantly synthesized the full range of viewpoints in his famous race speech during the last campaign, during this campaign we need a seminal speech on the biggest and fastest-growing American community — Latinos. We, and all Americans, need to hear the president explain and, indeed, celebrate an America in which one of every four kindergarteners today is a Latino. This can’t just be done at a Latino conference or in a closed door meeting. What’s required is a major presidential address on the most important demographic shift of the last one hundred years and what it means for America’s future.
I cannot imagine all the pressures involved in the job of president of the United States (even though we at Voto Latino do our best contribute to them on issues we care about!) but Latinos are not just some interest group that needs to be placated or an ideologically driven faction that can come and can go. We’re 50 million Americans and our views span the full range of the American political spectrum. Above all, we’re American first and we expect a president who treats us as such, not as an afterthought. Readers of HuffPost Latino know the election is coming faster than most people realize. Tick tock, Mr. President.