Does Obama's Choice to Fight for a Democratic Senate Hurt Latinos?

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Latino and immigration groups were vehement in their criticism of President Barack Obama for delaying action on immigration Saturday, but some questioned the validity of the groups’ complaint that he let down the Latino community.

When the president’s decision was announced Saturday morning, the immigrant advocate community’s reaction was swift. Days before Labor Day, a protest outside the White House was the latest in a more than yearlong campaign aimed at forcing him to use his presidential powers to defer deportations for more immigrants who are here illegally.

The advocates represent people with much at stake: Every day the president waits, people are being sent out of the U.S., many who have spent a decade in this country.

“Today, President Obama let the politics of fear get in the way of standing up for justice and fairness,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement sent immediately after the decision.

“It is ironic that at a moment when immigrants, Latino and Asian-American communities have shown their strength — at the ballot box, at the workplace and in their communities — the president has chosen to stand instead with politicians and others who prefer a short-term gain,” Hincapié said.

But Latinos aren’t showing as much strength as they could at the ballot box and do worse than other groups in voting during midterm elections. Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2008 and 2012, but voter registration among Latinos eligible to vote lags behind other groups. In 2010, 31.2 percent of Latinos eligible to vote turned out.

It’s clear the president’s decision took into account the political atmosphere. Republicans have a strong chance of regaining the majority in the Senate. But there are only a few seats at stake in the Senate where the Latino vote could have an impact.

The spring and summer influx of children from Central America and Mexico — including the financial support required to house those whom the law requires to get court hearings as well as the costs for deporting those who could be immediately removed — resonated in a country still economically shaky.

Action by the president before elections could have helped motivate Latino voters and boosted turnout, but the issue is: Would the boost have been big enough — particularly in certain states? By not taking action, the president removes the issue from the tight contests of vulnerable Senate Democrats.

Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist and administration ally, argues that Latinos need a Democratic Senate not just for more compassionate immigration reforms. The president's action takes into account not only the immigration needs of the Latino community, but its other needs as well, she said.

“On a whole slew of issues — education, the economy — having a Democratic Senate will be much more valuable for the Latino community to have,” Cardona said.

The president can take executive action, but a Republican House and Senate will take steps to reverse it, she warned. The best chance for getting something done legislatively would be with a Democratic Senate, she said.

“It is ironic that at a moment when immigrants, Latino and Asian-American communities have shown their strength ... the president has chosen to stand instead with politicians and others who prefer a short-term gain.”

It’s a difficult notion to accept among the immigrants who saw a Democrat-controlled Congress pass up on the chance for immigration reform in Obama’s first term. Many were not forgiving that once again they were being put on the back burner.

“In a breathtakingly harsh and short-sighted political miscalculation, immigrant families were sacrificed today,” said Deepak Bhargava, a spokesman for Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a coalition of immigration groups.

Bhargava said Obama was “cowing before squeamish Democratic senators and GOP bullies” and therefore “put politics ahead of the lives of immigrants and urgent needs in America.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, said the outcome of the Senate races “will not change the political landscape for immigration reform — whether won or lost, the president still will have to act alone to get this done.”

The immigrant groups and some Latino organizations have been focusing their ire on Obama for months, most notably when National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia called Obama “deporter in chief.”

Their activity brought complaints from the administration that the groups made it easier for Republicans to take no action on immigration reform. Still, Obama had said he would take action where Republicans failed and set a timeline for the end of summer.

“We will turn our frustration into action at the ballot boxes.”

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said Obama is taking a gamble that his decision will not have a long-term impact on the Latino vote for Democrats, that he can wait another three months and if his executive action is big enough, it erases all the bad feelings and six months of frustration.

But she said the decision potentially opens the door for the GOP in 2016 with Latinos if the president “doesn’t go bold and big with executive action. Latinos will say, 'What do we have to lose?'”

Some of the critics, despite their frustration with the president’s decision, seemed to agree.

Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which conducts get-out-the-vote drives in the Latino community, criticized the president’s delay, saying the group was deeply disappointed and angry about the decision. But, he added, “We also realize that we find ourselves in this dilemma due to the Republican-led House that derailed the best chance we had in recent years for comprehensive immigration reform.”

He noted that Latino community groups soon will kick off their voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns. “We will turn our frustration into action at the ballot boxes,” he said.