On Saturday, the day after President Barack Obama scored a political end-run around Mitt Romney by announcing he would administratively grant a popular group of undocumented young people temporary relief from deportation, Phoenix resident Tony Valdovinos says he “finally feels safe.”
Valdovinos, 22, an undocumented immigrant brought to Arizona as a toddler, is among some 1.4 million “dreamers” who will soon be able to get two-year renewable permits to reside, work, drive, and attend college legally in the United States under Obama’s new administrative policy, largely viewed as a move to cement the loyalty of a disenchanted Latino electorate in a tough presidential race.
Instead of celebrating his own good fortune, Valdovinos is using the “good energy” from the president’s executive order to canvas Latino neighborhoods in the broiling heat. His goal: to turn Arizona blue.
Another good sign for Obama: Democrats say Arizona independents also are joining their ranks, citing a poll (PDF) taken by Project New America, a progressive political strategy firm, in early June. The poll says Obama trails Romney by 3 points, and former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, the Democratic nominee for the Senate, trails presumptive Republican foe Jeff Flake by only 2 points.
Latino leaders in Arizona remain cautiously optimistic, saying that at best the state will go purple.
Latinos make up about 12 percent of Arizona voters, and while they’re energized by the Obama announcement, they’re facing off against an equally energized voting bloc—Mormons, who favor fellow Mormon Mitt Romney and make up 8 percent of Arizona voters.
Unlike Latinos, Mormons have “extraordinarily high” voter turnout, “and you can assume the majority of Mormons will vote for Mitt Romney” even though he’s more of an immigration hawk than many in the LDS church, says Jill Hanauer, the president of Project New America.
Latinos traditionally have not turned out vigorously in Arizona elections, their leaders say, because they have long felt disenfranchised in the state. They reversed that trend and voted for Obama in 2008, but felt burned by the president’s record deportations, and his failure to meaningfully address immigration reform. His dreamer announcement may have been a game changer in Arizona, according to the Latino Decisions poll taken in the wake of the announcement.
The poll showed 49 percent of Latinos in five swing states, including Arizona, were “more enthusiastic” about the president.
The poll also showed weak support for Romney, who once vowed to veto the DREAM Act, a proposed federal law that would give young, law-abiding undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they attended college or served in the military. Romney’s alliance with immigration hawks such as Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who authored Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, also lowered his support among Arizona Latinos, who feel singled out by the measure, which requires all Arizona law enforcers to enforce immigration law.
If SB 1070 is upheld by the Supreme Court later this month, it would soon take effect in Arizona. While the president’s announcement fell far short of any permanent legal status for dreamers, who self-identify as Americans, it granted Arizona dreamers relief from the daily fear of being deported.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed SB 1070, dubbed Obama’s move “backdoor amnesty.” Other Arizona Republicans scrambled to solidify conservative voters by responding to the dreamer reprieve. Congressmen David Schweikert and Ben Quayle (two sitting lawmakers fighting for the same congressional seat in a newly drawn district) both sponsored laws to block the president’s executive action. Sen. Jon Kyl suggested that Republicans move on Sen. Marco Rubio’s conservative version of the DREAM Act.
But Obama’s action has boosted him in the state. “The president solidified Latino voters 100 percent, and energized the community to work hard to elect him,” says Steve Gallardo, a state senator. “Now at least the president is able to show Latinos he’s in their corner.”
For months, Latino activists in Arizona have been trying to energize Democratic Hispanic voters by not mentioning the president and talking up local races instead.
Local races “affect the lives of voters” says Raquel Teran, an Arizona Democrat running for a state senate seat. Teran, who was born in Arizona but nevertheless faced a recent “birther” lawsuit contesting her candidacy on the grounds of citizenship (it was dismissed) allows that Arizona is not the “easiest state” to win for Obama.
Given that Obama moved administratively to help dreamers, “he could have done this three years ago,” says Latino activist Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Arizona state senator who has been a bitter critic of the “absolutely hypocritical” president. With the president’s track record, he says, he remains distrustful of anything Obama promises Latinos. Nevertheless, Gutierrez says, when Obama’s administrative order takes effect in 60 days it will likely fulfill its promise of granting relief to dreamers because the president can’t afford to let down 1.4 million wildly popular kids.
“Dreamers,” says Gutierrez, “have the upper hand” and will be “elated” and will “help the Obama campaign.”
Still, he doubts Obama can carry Arizona because of “the Mormons” and a strong Republican base that supports Romney.
Those are exactly the forces that Tony Valdovinos hopes to counter by energizing Latino voters as he walks the hot streets of Phoenix this summer. “Obama did the right thing,” he says. “I feel really amazing about this. I feel hopeful.”