Obama’s Uphill 2012 Battle in Arizona for Disillusioned Latino Voters

Latino voters stung by Obama’s unfulfilled immigration-reform promises may stay home on Election Day.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

At a recent breakfast in New Hampshire, David Axelrod, the brainy strategist for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, didn’t sugarcoat the “titanic struggle” it will take to get Obama reelected.

That struggle apparently includes trying to win over contrarian Arizona, where Axelrod will make a quiet visit on Oct. 13, attending a $250-per-person “evening reception and campaign kickoff” at a private home in Phoenix. Although neither Axelrod nor the Obama campaign would comment on the strategist’s trip, a source within the campaign said in an email: “We’re building the biggest organization possible in 2011 to compete on the widest playing field possible in 2012—and due to demographic changes since 2008 in Arizona we’re taking a close look at competing in Arizona.”

According to recent census information, Latinos now make up nearly 30 percent of the population of Arizona, which native son Sen. John McCain won by 8.5 percent in 2008. And a population surge, mostly attributable to Latinos, means that the state gets another voting district. Redistricting efforts now offer some hope to the Obama campaign: while four districts will likely be dominated by Republicans, Democrats will hold two districts, and three swing districts could vote either way.

Nationally, Obama, who promised immigration reform during his first presidential campaign, won two thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008.

Although the president’s approval rating is slumping, Latino voters aren’t likely to desert him for the GOP. Still, it’s unclear whether Obama’s failure to push through immigration reform could persuade them to stay home on Election Day. While an August impreMedia-Latino Decisions tracking poll found that immigration reform is a priority for Latino voters, a private Univision poll that same month found that Latinos are far more concerned about the economy.

In Arizona, where many extended Latino families include voting citizens as well as undocumented immigrants, immigration reform remains a key issue. Part of Axelrod’s “titanic struggle” will be regaining the trust of disillusioned Latino voters.

Still shell-shocked by the passage of Arizona’s draconian immigration law, many Latinos have lost jobs and homes in a stagnant economy they say Obama has been unable to turn around. Many also feel betrayed by the administration’s record deportations of unauthorized immigrants. And they’re angry at the president’s failure to effectively push for promised immigration reform.

“The problem Obama has now is credibility,” said former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez, a well-known Phoenix activist.

“Regaining integrity is an exceedingly difficult thing,” he added. “Obama blames Republicans for his failures, but what did he do? Nothing. He didn’t lift a finger.”

The broken promises, in the eyes of many Arizona Latino leaders, aren’t offset by the appointment of Latina Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court; appointments of minorities to other federal judicial positions; the Justice Department’s swift moves to fight state immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama; and a recent administrative order that gives immigration prosecutors the “discretion” not to immediately seek to deport undocumented immigrants who fall into specialized categories, such as pregnant women and “DREAMers,” young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, self-identify as Americans, and have no criminal records.

The DREAM Act, which Obama had promised to push through in the first year of his presidency, would have given “DREAMers” a shot at legal residency if they graduated from high school, had no criminal records, and wanted to serve in the military or attend college. After stagnating for two years, it narrowly passed the House in 2010 but was killed in the Senate in December 2010 after five Democrats voted against it.

In Arizona, the DREAM Act’s failure is a lightning rod for outrage. Undocumented college students have publicly disclosed their immigration status and are sympathetically portrayed in frequent media appearances. Twenty-six-year-old Dulce Matuz graduated with an engineering degree from Arizona State University in 2009, when Obama was the commencement speaker. “He was my hero,” she said. “He promised to pass the DREAM Act.” Now Matuz, a well-known activist respected in the Latino community, said, “I have no hero.”

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“There’s a lingering thought that more could have been done [by the president]” to convince the five Democrats who voted against the DREAM Act, said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a supporter of the bill.

Gabriela Domenzain, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said in an email that the president fought hard for the legislation and other Latino causes. “The choice for Hispanic Americans is between a President who passed legislation that kept 1.9 million Latinos out of poverty, provided 150,000 additional Hispanic students with the means to go to college, and fought to pass comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act and a Republican field whose leading candidates oppose the DREAM Act and a path to citizenship for immigrants and would slash funding for education, Medicare, and Social Security,” she said.

“No way would we tell people to vote for Obama—we would lose our credibility,” said Gutierrez, the former state senator. Still, he added, Latinos need to vote in 2012 so that candidates who support Latino causes will not be defeated.

“At the end of the day, the Latino community could shoot itself in the foot over the issue of having to support President Obama or not,” said Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix attorney and chairman of the board of the National Council of La Raza. “We’re better off to vote.”

Arizona Latinos can be motivated to vote, said Grijalva, but the Obama camp has to provide “significant up front” logistical and financial commitment. “We can’t just rely on their promise.”

What’s more, Grijalva said, the Obama campaign must “bring in new Latino blood.”

Arizona’s new Latino activists were galvanized by what they viewed as rampant mistreatment of immigrants. They now commandeer well-organized battalions of volunteers who could turn out voters for Obama.

Still, “no one from the Obama campaign has gotten in touch with our organization to see what’s up,” said Randy Parraz, a Latino activist who organized a history-making upcoming Nov. 8 recall election against state Sen. Russell Pearce, the sponsor of Arizona’s immigration law.

Parraz is a Democrat, but he partnered with conservative Republicans and organized volunteers who canvassed neighborhoods to obtain the necessary signatures to recall Pearce, who backed SB 1070. The state immigration law makes it a crime for unauthorized immigrants to set foot in Arizona, turns law-enforcement officers into immigration enforcers, and criminalizes citizens for living with or driving their unauthorized-immigrant relatives. (Parts of the law have been temporarily stayed by a federal judge.)

“You’d think they would at least touch base with us if they want to connect with Latinos,” Parraz said of the Obama campaign.

The activist said he is not on the guest list for the upcoming Axelrod gala in Phoenix, but added, “Quite frankly, I don’t really care.”