Latinos pin hopes of immigration reform on Obama …After helping Barack Obama win the election, Latinos seek to remind him to enact comprehensive immigration reform
Barack Obama borrowed more from the immigrant labour movement than just a slogan.
Just as Latinos historically had marched for worker rights to the chants of “Yes, we can,” (“Si, se puede”), they organised and stumped by the thousands this year to help elect Obama.
Although they initially leaned more toward Hillary Clinton, Latinos threw support to Obama by 67% nationwide, increasing their turnout, delivering several key states and gaining clout in the Democratic party.
They say they earned a seat at Obama’s table and plan to remind him that he promised to revive and enact a proposal many favour: comprehensive immigration reform, including a legalisation programme.
“I’m feeling positive about Obama. I believe him. That’s why I worked for him during the election campaign, going to Nevada on weekends,” said Raul Cardenas, a naturalised US citizen who organises janitors in Sacramento, California with Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union.
Stoked by a surge in new citizens and voter registration drives, Nevada’s Latino electorate leaped 87% from 2004 levels. With 76% of the state’s Hispanic voters choosing Obama, they gave him a decisive edge in a state President George W Bush won in 2004.
“It’s hard to take on immigration in the middle of an economic crisis,” said political analyst Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Centre. Obama might find he has to wrestle with divisions within his own party over immigration, especially in the House of Representatives.
On the other hand, Cain said, opportunity exists. Some within the Republican party are urging their brethren to repair relations with Latinos, the fastest-growing voter demographic.
Meanwhile, for the Democrats, Cain added, “politically it would be a huge mistake not to do immigration reform in the first term, given the Latino support for Obama.”
Latinos are helping Democrats gain in the red states of Texas and Arizona and have helped colour California blue.
Latino rights groups and leaders of immigrant-rich unions, including Cardenas’, agree it seems counter-intuitive to pursue immigration reform during an economic crisis with rising unemployment. But they expect Obama to sell reform as a plus for stability and economic recovery. He can build support, they say, with businesses and Republicans favouring reform.
“I think it’s a matter of timing, and how it all fits together,” said Mike Garcia, Los Angeles-based president of SEIU Local 1877, part of a union movement that has made legalising illegal immigrant workers a priority.
While Latinos and unions plan their strategy, groups that oppose immigration reform are also weighing their options. Numbers USA, which wants a reduction in legal immigration, is already calling on Obama to oppose “amnesty” and is searching for allies in the new Congress.
Cain said, “Obama knows this is a can of worms. And what we do know about Obama is he is a very deliberate person.”
After a meeting between Obama and Arizona senator John McCain, his defeated Republican rival, aides suggested immigration was an issue the two could work on together, given that McCain has a history of co-authoring comprehensive reform bills that included a programme for undocumented workers to earn legal status, more workplace enforcement and more visas for foreigners to legally fill proven labour shortages.
SEIU is one of the nation’s fastest-growing unions, with a strong influence in California and other states where immigrants are a pillar of the work force.
To elect Obama and Democrats, SEIU sent 3,000 of its own staff and local leaders to swing states, and an additional 100,000 members – nurses, janitors, and caregivers – stumped in home states.
The union registered 227,000 new voters in California and swing states, an SEIU post-election report also shows. And now one of its top officials, executive vice president Eliseo Medina, has been appointed to Obama’s transition team committee on immigration.
Medina, a Californian born in Mexico, served on Obama’s Latino campaign advisory committee. He has lobbied for legalisation and a new visa system for years, working closely in a coalition with the US Chamber of Commerce.