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Behind State Of The Union, A Fight for The Latino Vote

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) Reuters

WASHINGTON -- It may not have been obvious to those who watched Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, but amid the formality, the political parties were tussling for Latinos’ attention to carry to the voting booths in 2016.

From the guests of first lady Michelle Obama to the Republicans’ choice of freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., to give the GOP rebuttal in Spanish, the jousting for what will be a critical electorate in next year’s presidential race was on.

President Barack Obama raised the immigration issue only twice, but put it on par with other major issues and with his commitment to them.

"We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix," Obama said. "And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto."

Obama touted his executive action for immigrants through Ana Zamora, a beneficiary of the action Obama took in 2012 to shield young immigrants from deportation. She sat with the first lady.

"Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," he said.

Also sitting with Michelle Obama was Alan Gross, the government contractor imprisoned for five years in Cuba, whose release has been part of a normalizing of relations with Cuba.

In his speech, Obama urged Congress to begin ending the Cuba embargo and invoked the name of Pope Francis, who helped broker the easing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and his referral to diplomacy as "the work of small steps."

"In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date," Obama said. "When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new."

In addition, the White House promised bilingual updates and closed captioning in Spanish for the speech on social media, along with an hour on Wednesday dedicated to administration officials responding to the public’s questions on immigration, education and “Latino issues.” The questions were to be taken on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr under the hashtag #AskTheWH.

Republicans, who are working to end the 2012 action and to keep Obama from expanding the program to more immigrants, rallied around Cuban “freedom fighters” in a show of opposition to the president’s march toward warmer relations with Cuba. On the guest list of House Speaker John Boehner was Jorge Luis García Pérez, who had been imprisoned for 17 years in Cuba.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, criticized the president's remarks on Cuba. "Instead of rewarding repressive, anti-American regimes like Cuba and Iran with undeserved concessions that legitimize and enrich them, he should condition normalized relations on real, irreversible results that protect U.S. national security interests, safeguard human rights and ensure greater political freedoms," said Rubio, a Cuban American.

Republicans offered live responses online during the speech, although it was not billed as bilingual.

Curbelo, delivering his speech in Spanish, called himself a son of immigrants and spoke of his parents' journey to the United States to find liberty, an opportunity to work and to contribute to this country.

Curbelo, also of Cuban descent, said lawmakers should work through "appropriate channels to create permanent solutions to our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration and strengthen our economy." He said the president has supported similar ideas and "we ask him to collaborate with us to get it done."

The English version of the GOP response, delivered by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and pitched as a list of GOP priorities rather than a response to Obama's speech, did not reference immigration.

“We all know that a presidential election is coming in three years and it starts as soon as the calendar flips to the odd numbered year,” said Larry Gonzalez, a Democratic political strategist with the Raben Group. “We would describe this as the first blow out of the gate and it’s going to escalate. (But) the issue will still get back to who will enact policies that will move Latinos forward?"

GOP strategist Alfonso Aguilar said the tit for tat “shows the politics of the Latino vote.” But he said it also showed that the Democrats understand the importance of the Mexican (American) vote better than Republicans.”

Cuban policies are an important issue, but the president’s effort to open diplomatic relations with Cuba causes far less angst with Hispanics outside of the southern Florida, said Aguilar, executive director of the American Principles Project Latino Partnership, a conservative group.

“They are bringing in this issue, but again it is something that appeals to the Cuban (American) community,” Aguilar said. “I agree with Marco Rubio that normalizing relations is not going to help the Cuban people . . . but where are they (Repbulicans) on immigration?”

About two thirds of the Latino population in the U.S. is of Mexican descent. U.S. residents of Cuban descent number about 2 million, and the share born in Cuba is declining, according to Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends project.

"That’s a small percentage of the population. It’s a very real, substantive issue, our relationship with Cuba," Gonzalez said. "It has a huge impact in Florida, but the rest of the country? How many people in the Mexican community are overly engaged with Cuba?"

Instead, Gonzalez said Latinos' attention has to be captured with the kind of policies that drew much more of the president's time in his speech – jobs, wages, increased business with the world, the planet's future and education.

In the days leading up to his speech, Obama promoted a plan to make two years of college free and repeated that plan Tuesday. He said he wants to spread the idea across America "so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today."

"To me the most amazing part of this (speech) is (the president) wanting to expand the educational opportunities for everyone and by coincidence the vast majority of people who use community colleges are Hispanic ... If Latinos do well, the country does well" said Lorena Chambers, a Democratic strategist at Chambers Lopez Strategies LLC.