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February 2010

Will Obama Keep his Promises?

Although he pledged to do so in his campaign, the President failed to tackle immigration in 2009. the 10 million Hispanics who voted for him still love him, but they’re growing impatient.

By Vytenis Didziulis | PODER Magazine
New York Times

STORY TOOLS

Using a formality reserved for only the most momentous occasions, the Senators rose behind their wooden desks, one by one, and voted aloud. When all was said and done, Sonia Sotomayor had been confirmed as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in the nation’s history. A 55-year-old native of the Bronx and a self-described “Nuyorican,” Sotomayor’s rise to the highest court in the land broke many taboos and engendered even more dreams. The milestone was a collective achievement initiated by another taboo-breaker and dream-maker—President Barack Obama. For him, it was an early victory for his nascent presidency, but it was also a clear wink and nod to the Hispanic community that their interests were being heard.

On the heels of Sotomayor’s confirmation came other high-profile appointments. Former California Rep. Hilda Solis, whose parents come from Mexico and Nicaragua, became the first Hispanic woman to join the Cabinet when she was named Secretary of Labor, and Thomas Perez, a New Yorker of Dominican descent, was tapped as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. A number of high-ranking Hispanics were also elevated to senior positions in the president’s staff and in key agencies. In fact, in less than a year in office, Obama chose 49 Hispanics to positions requiring senate confirmation and succeeded in having 35 receive the congressional nod—surpassing former presidents Bill Clinton (30) and George W. Bush (34) in their first 20 months.

Of course, none of this assures Obama will get a free ride in 2010, not when such important issues as immigration, unemployment, education and healthcare have yet to be addressed, at least from a Hispanic perspective. “Right now there is not a lot more to applaud other than [the nomination of Sonia] Sotomayor,” Raul Gonzalez, the legislative affairs director for the National Council of La Raza, says of Obama’s first year in office. “It’s big, but it’s not going to get somebody a job, its not going to keep somebody in their home, and its not going to reunite families.”

Like Gonzalez, some of the key interest groups representing the 46.9 million Hispanics in this country see little else to cheer about in terms of how the Obama administration has addressed the community’s interests so far. In some ways Hispanics are like other voting blocs that helped Obama win the presidency and are now, in varying degrees, dismayed by unfulfilled campaign promises.

Immigration reform is perhaps the most important campaign pledge, even though surveys have shown Hispanics consistently rank immigration below the economy, jobs and health care. “What happens with immigration is it’s seen as one of those issues of acceptance,” says Alfredo Balsera, founder of Balsera Communications and a Latino spokesperson during the Obama campaign.

But the urgency Hispanic groups are showing in getting legislation underway may also be a result of Obama’s own lofty promises, including a plan to provide a path to legalization for 12 million illegal immigrants. “I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President,” he told an audience at the League of United Latin American Citizens in 2008. Two top administration officials, Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano and Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, repeated this message in 2009.

In reality, the only progress made was late last year, when U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) introduced an immigration proposal in the House for debate. His legislation, pronounced dead on arrival by some because it did not include a temporary worker program, cut along the lines of Obama’s previous statements—opening the door to legalization for workers, stepping up border security, cracking down on employers, and making English mandatory. As much as a proposal for reform, Gutiérrez said his bill also reflected the impatience of immigrant advocates.

Obama did not publicly endorse the bill, but in recent weeks White House officials have held meetings and conference calls with key Hispanic leaders to reassure them of the president’s commitment. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is also expected to introduce legislation in the Senate early in 2010. With the health care bill stalled and new financial regulations on the way, Congress realistically has room for only one more big-ticket item. November’s mid-term elections make immigration reform a hard-sell over climate change, especially in view of Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s January victory in Massachusetts, chipping away the Democrats’ fillibuster-proof “super majority” in the Senate.

For some time now, the economy and jobs have been on the minds of every American, Hispanics included. At year’s end, the national unemployment rate was 10 percent, with a 12.9 percent jobless rate for Hispanics and 16.2 percent for African Americans. The hit was especially discomforting in the construction sector, where one in four workers is Hispanic and 22.5 percent of the total workforce is now unemployed. But Hispanic interest groups in Washington say the president’s $787 billion stimulus package—his central job-saving program—missed the target in terms of putting Hispanics back to work. The reason is the stimulus bill invested heavily in saving vital public sector jobs like police, fire fighters and teachers—professions underrepresented by Hispanics.

Javier Palomarez is the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a national organization that helps communicate the concerns of 3 million Hispanic-owned businesses. Palomarez chides the White House for not having done more to spur job growth among Hispanics by supporting entrepreneurs. His logic is simple: 64 percent of American jobs are generated by small businesses located in communities where Hispanics live and work. But the administration concentrated the bailout on the “too-big-to-fail” banks. Meanwhile, some of those banks reduced their loans to small businesses. Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, for instance, received $7.6 billion in bailout money but reduced its loans to small businesses by 10 percent, Palomarez says.

Government didn’t do much better than the private sector. Last year, Hispanic companies accounted for only 3 percent of the Small Business Administration’s loan portfolio, despite accounting for millions of businesses and in the face of a disproportionate unemployment rate, says Palomarez. “Clearly that’s not right and that’s not fair.”

Still, “On a more narrowly focused scale, in terms of the American small business community, I would give the administration a B+,” Palomarez says, adding he thinks unrealistic expectations were heaped on the president who inherited a financial meltdown and two overseas wars.

For many businesses and individuals, Hispanic or not, health care is a primary concern. It was also Obama’s chief legislative goal last year and will likely consume a considerable chunk of his time in 2010. He staked his personal image and leveraged the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House to pass bills in both chambers. Hispanic interest groups supported the reform effort but have become disenchanted with language they say adversely affects some Hispanics. For example, in mid-January the Latinos United for Healthcare called for the extension of benefits under any health care legislation to Puerto Ricans. While the island is a U.S. protectorate, the bills under discussion don’t grant U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico Medicaid benefits or access to the insurance exchange. Advocacy groups are also seeking the elimination of the five-year waiting period preventing legal immigrants from receiving Medicaid benefits.

Health care unleashed a vitriolic debate. It was a microcosm of the more radicalized and violent national confrontation over immigration reform and the possible amnesty of illegal immigrants. In the decade ending with the last push for reform in 2007, more than 77,000 hate crime incidents were reported by the FBI. Since then, hate crimes against Hispanics have continued. The president, who in the words of Alfredo Balsera is someone who appreciates “the contribution that Hispanics have made to American society,” supported and signed into law stiff legislation making it a federal crime to assault someone based on their race, or religious and sexual preferences.

“The critical factor is that it stands as a deterrent, and hopefully an effective deterrent, to people ever engaging in those type of crimes,” says Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). Saenz notes, however, that Obama needs to assign more Hispanic and pro-civil rights federal judges to hear important electoral redistricting cases, equal education issues, and constitutional challenges to local ordinances that go against federal immigration policies.

Through it all, a large majority of Hispanics still trust and approve of the president’s job performance. The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll released in January put the number at 61 percent. In November, an Associated Press-GfK poll pegged Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics at 68 percent. Fernand Amandi, an executive vice president at Bendixen and Amandi, a public opinion research firm, says the president’s approval rating has remained steady over the last year. That’s important because 67 percent of the approximately 10 million Hispanic voters who participated in the 2008 presidential election chose Obama. “The key thing is the bond between the president and the community is strong,” says Amandi, who conducts polling on Hispanic attitudes for the White House. “They trust he is doing the best he can. The question is how long will that last.”

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