President Obama courted an influential Hispanic group Monday, seeking to improve relations with a crucial voting bloc that has become increasingly disillusioned by unfulfilled campaign promises amid a record number of deportations.
Obama's remarks to the National Council of La Raza came on the heels of a presidential visit to Puerto Rico, a speech along the Texas-Mexico border and a series of recent meetings with high-profile Latinos and celebrities at the White House, each meant to remind Hispanic voters that he is sympathetic to their causes — despite a shortage of concrete changes to immigration policy during his term.
But many in the Latino community greeted the president's words — in which he cast blame on Republicans for blocking comprehensive immigration reform — with exasperation.
“Despite soaring rhetoric, the president's unbridled enforcement of unjust and outdated immigration laws has contributed to an unprecedented civil rights crisis for our community,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “The president can now claim the title deporter in chief.”
Conservative Latino groups were equally scathing.
“I'd pretty much give him an 'F',” said state Rep. Juan Zapata, a Florida Republican and leader in the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “He didn't promise a lot but he hasn't even delivered on that. He's done nothing more than lip service.”
While repeatedly touting immigration reform, Obama has yet to make a serious bid for such measures on Capitol Hill. In broad terms, Obama has called for an immigration policy that would secure the borders, punish businesses for employing undocumented workers and create a mechanism for those in the country illegally to gain citizenship, a proposal critics dismiss as “amnesty” for lawbreakers.
Obama on Monday also reiterated his support for the Dream Act, which would grant citizenship to certain students in the country illegally, but in a jab at Republicans he added, “I need a dance partner here and the floor is empty.”
The lack of progress on causes with widespread Hispanic support is starting to weigh on the left-leaning voters.
A recent Gallup Poll shows that Obama's support among Hispanics over the past 18 months has plummeted from 73 percent to 52 percent.
“There continues to be a split,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster for Latino Decisions. “The president has solid overall approval but when we ask specific questions about living up to promises, many say the president should do more.”
Barreto said many Hispanics are disappointed that Obama hasn't used his executive authority to ease the pace of deportations among nonviolent illegal immigrants. Doing so would draw the ire of some independents, who would view the move with deep suspicion.
Obama's path to victory in swing states such as Virginia and Florida certainly looks hazier without the overwhelming Hispanic support he received in 2008.
Republican presidential candidates were quick to pounce on Obama's speech as a political ploy.
In a release coinciding with the president's speech, Mitt Romney's campaign declared, “Obama has failed the Hispanic community,” noting that 2.6 million Hispanic Americans were unemployed in June — a more than 20 percent increase since Obama took office.