Obama faces tough sell on immigration at Hispanic gala

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President Obama shouldn't expect a warm reception when he speaks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual gala in Washington on Thursday night.

Latino and immigrant-rights groups are frustrated with his decision to delay action on immigration until after the November midterm elections. Tonight, Obama faces a tough task of reassuring Latinos that the delay is not another broken promise and that he will ease his deportation policies before the end of the year.


At a Hispanic Caucus event on Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez served as a de facto warm-up act for Obama, who last spoke at the event in 2011. Perez said he has no doubt that the president will act on his own to tweak immigration rules.

“The question of executive action, my friends, is a when question,” Perez told an audience of policymakers and and activists.


Perez added that he is confident that Obama "will not hesitate" to act because of his deep personal belief in immigration reform.

The crowd, however, did not appear as convinced as Perez. The labor secretary's line drew no applause. By contrast, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) received an ovation when, minutes later, he slammed Obama for scrapping his administration's plan to enact reform by the end of the summer.

"The president said 'I will take action,'" he said. "And what are we waiting for? We are waiting for the president to act. I think he should have acted before the election."

Obama has endured this type of criticism ever since he announced last month that he was punting on immigration until after Election Day.


With a reform bill dead in Congress, activists for months have pressured Obama to unilaterally extend deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants and to end or curtail certain enforcement policies. They argue that thousands more people will be deported due to the delay.

Demonstrators from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Presente.org, two groups urging Obama to act, will protest outside the gala, according to a press release.


Disenchantment among Latinos has created a political problem for Obama and the Democratic Party.

The president won more than seven in ten Latino voters in 2012, but his numbers have plummeted recently. Just 52 percent of Hispanic adults approve of President Obama's job performance, according to a Gallup poll released last week. Over half of Latino Democrats say the party is not doing a good job of representing their views on immigration, according to a separate survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.


While activists pressure Obama to make policy changes around immigration, some Democrats in Congress have pleaded with him to wait until after midterm elections. Vulnerable members running for reelection in red states, where voters have more hard-line views on the issue, have argued that the president should not act alone. But some Latino political analysts argue that the delay cost Democrats the chance to win other key Senate and House races by mobilizing Latino voters.

Angry over the delay, some advocates have urged Latinos to not vote for Democrats, or avoid the ballot box altogether.


The disillusionment among many Latinos stems from a belief that politicians ask Latinos for their votes in election years, but don't act on immigration reform, a top concern for voters.

“We would not wait until after November if it was an issue affecting the gay and lesbian community,” said Gutierrez, who has been critical of the White House's handling of the immigration issue. “If this was about womens’ reproductive rights, if this was about the minimum wage … the Democratic Party would come together.”


Ana Navarro, a Republican Latino outreach consultant, said that Obama has not fulfilled his promises on immigration while the GOP has not even bothered to make promises. "That is unacceptable."

The White House said Thursday that Obama's speech will stress his work on healthcare reform, education, immigration, and civil rights.


"The president will reiterate his commitment to expanding opportunities for all hardworking Americans including Hispanics and he will highlight efforts by the administration that have led to significant, measurable progress in the Latino community," an official said in a statement to Fusion.

Obama has faced similar criticism in the past. Immigration advocates were unhappy that Obama did not live up to his campaign promise to put forth a reform bill during his first year in office. In his 2010 speech at the CHCI gala, Obama said he was committed to passing legislation "as soon as we can."


Some audience members shouted back, "When?"

Top elected Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi, argue that immigration activists' criticism of Obama is counter-productive because it lets Republicans off the hook. Republicans in the House, they note, blocked the immigration bill that Obama supported. And they voted to end President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that granted deportation relief to hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.


Still, the frustration with Obama likely won't abate until he enacts more policy changes. For now, the only thing the White House can say is "trust us."

“Sometimes getting things right takes longer and patience is not a luxury that so many people who are suffering have," Perez said. "And that is always the challenge."


Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.