By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/10/2011 4:46:17 PM ET 2011-05-10T20:46:17

President Barack Obama’s visit to Texas Tuesday adds some cash to his campaign fund and shows that he’s paying attention to immigration reform, an issue vital to Latinos, a significant part of his 2008 electoral constituency.

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Obama has little chance of winning Texas in 2012, but he’ll be speaking to a much wider audience of Latinos outside of that state — to areas that will be in play: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and elsewhere.

The gold mine of votes for Obama is the trove of millions of eligible but unregistered Latinos who could help tip states like Arizona into his column — but only if they can be persuaded that his efforts on their behalf are worth backing.

Are good intentions enough?
A big unknown is whether Latinos will be more impressed by Obama’s good intentions on the immigration issue, or more discouraged by the lack of progress toward enactment of a comprehensive bill, including a path to citizenship for those living in the United States illegally.

Eliseo Medina, the secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union of immigrant workers, is heading the group’s effort to reach and register eligible Latinos.

Story: Latino population boom will have 2012 election echoes

Medina, whom the White House invited to be in the audience for Obama’s immigration speech in El Paso, Texas, said in an interview Tuesday morning, “Clearly with immigration reform and any other kind of reform that would benefit the Latino community, we have to make sure that our voices are heard in the ballot box. There are approximately 23 million Latinos that are eligible to vote, yet only 10 million voted in 2008.”

Although the 2008 Latino vote was a historic peak, “that’s still nowhere near the number that it could and should be,” he said.

A recent analysis of the 2010 elections by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Latinos continue to underperform on Election Day: fewer than 7 percent of voters were Latino, even though more than 16 percent of the U.S. population is Latino.

Video: President urges support for immigration reform (on this page)

SEIU, together with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the Univision Spanish-language TV network, and other organizations, has launched a voter education and registration crusade called “Ya Es Hora” or “Now’s the Time.”

Goal: 15 million Latino voters
The goal: “if we increase the turnout from 10 million to anywhere between 12 and 15 million we’re going to have an outsized impact on the election in 2012.”

He said the drive has already begun in Arizona (11 electoral votes) Colorado (9 electoral votes), Texas (38 electoral votes), and Nevada (6 electoral votes).

Medina emphasized that this is a nonpartisan effort. Yet it’s impossible to ignore two facts: SEIU has been a leading contributor to Democratic candidates and campaigns in the past. And exit poll surveys in 2008 indicated that Obama won about two out of three Latino voters nationwide, so registering more Latinos would be beneficial to him.

As for immigration reform, Medina said, “We know that the president can’t guarantee success, but what we do expect is a strong effort and I’m pleased that so far he seems to be giving us that.”

Under Obama, even while no reform bill has been passed, the Department of Homeland Security has been deporting illegal immigrants in record numbers. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Obama at the White House last week to urge him to slow down deportations of students.

Timeline: Immigration to the U.S. (on this page)

According to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in both fiscal years 2009 and 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement “removed more illegal immigrants from our country than ever before.” That totaled nearly 800,000 removals during those two years.

She told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, “Illegal immigration is decreasing. Deportations are increasing. Crime rates are dropping. The numbers that are supposed to go up have gone up, and the numbers that are supposed to go down have gone down.”

Although Obama wants comprehensive immigration reform, a crucial group in his own party has shown wariness, opposing even limited steps toward legalization.

Key Democrats oppose DREAM Act
Case in point: last December’s Senate rejection of the DREAM Act, a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants brought to the United States before age 16. A motion to stop a filibuster of the bill got 55 votes, five short of what it needed.

In El Paso Tuesday Obama said, "We passed the DREAM Act through the House last year. But even though it received a majority of votes in the Senate, it was blocked when several Republicans who had previously supported the Dream Act voted no."

This was partly true: Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine did switch their votes from the last time the Senate voted on the proposal in 2007.

But the last few votes needed to overcome the filibuster were those those of battleground state Democrats, such as Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, all of whom voted to support the filibuster.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., voiced opposition to the DREAM Act, but missed the filibuster vote.

Of the five states represented by those Democratic senators, only North Carolina went for Obama in 2008.

Tester, Nelson and Manchin are up for re-election next year, and given their states’ electorates, a push for immigration reform from Obama would present them with a chance to distance themselves from the president, not a reason to support him.

As for Texas, where the president is speaking and raising campaign funds Tuesday, it’s a more electorally valuable prize than ever: it gained four electoral votes as a result of this year’s reapportionment and now has more electoral votes than Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado combined.

Obama winning Texas in 2012 would signify a momentous electoral vote shift. But experts say it seems doubtful that he can make the state competitive.

Obama unpopular in Texas
His approval rating in Texas was languishing at about 36 percent, according to the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Even at the peak of his approval in national surveys in May of 2009, when 66 percent of those surveyed in the Gallup Poll approved of his performance, Obama lagged nearly 25 percentage points behind that number in Texas.

He does have one potential advantage in the state: there are more than 2 million Latinos eligible to vote but not registered in Texas, according to Matt Barreto, pollster for Latino Decisions and a University of Washington political scientist.

But making the math work in Texas still looks very difficult for Obama.

“I do not think the president can make Texas competitive in 2012,” said political scientist Sylvia Manzano at Texas A&M University. “The Democratic party has been unsuccessful in the state for a very long time now (zero statewide Democrats elected in over a decade). So, even a very strong presidential campaign cannot undo this enduring trend in one contest.”

She said “while the Texas Latino electorate continues to grow, candidates still need a large share of non-Latino votes to win statewide offices.”

James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said, “The president is reasonably popular among Democrats here,” but “he’s intensely unpopular among Republicans.”

“The Democrats here are very beleaguered and it does rally Democrats when he comes here,” Henson said. “But you're going to have a hard time finding anybody here that’s not a paid partisan who’d say there’s a realistic hope that Texas will be competitive for the president in 2012. Nothing in recent election results, nothing in the polling data, suggests that that would be the case.”

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Video: President urges support for immigration reform

Timeline: Immigration to the U.S.

A look at immigration policy since 1790

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