When Barack Obama and I last sat down in 2006, I refused to shake his hand. Today, I still won’t. His announcement last weekend that he would delay executive action on immigration is his fifth broken promise to Latinos on this all-important issue for our community. He has been blind to the pain of the 1,100 deportations our communities face every day and the anguish our families feel as they are swung back and forth as political pawns.
The question for us Latinos — especially the nearly 24 million of us eligible to vote — is, what to do about this? How can we ensure that the fastest-growing demographic in the country isn’t taken for granted by Democrats who purport to be our allies but often dash our hopes in the face of the least bit of political pressure? There are no obvious or even satisfactory answers, but one thing is clear: We’ve been slapped in the face one too many times by this president. And it probably won’t be the last: Obama has a long record of betraying Latinos — and it predates his days in the White House. I’ve seen it up close.
When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he promised to represent Latinos and lead on immigration reform. His speech during the Democratic National Convention that year captivated me. While busy running six health clinics for low-income and mostly undocumented immigrants on Chicago’s southwest side, I strongly urged every Latino and immigrant registered voter I came across to support Obama. As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who picked beets in South Dakota in the 1940s and then moved to Chicago to open a successful jukebox business, I was proud to pull the ballot for Obama on Election Day.
But as Illinois’ new senator, instead of working to pass immigration reform, Obama in 2006 voted in favor of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Security first, then reform, we were told. Sometime later that year, Obama came to Chicago for a damage-control meeting with some 50 of his closest Latino allies. He worked the tables, walking from person to person and shaking everyone’s hand. He extended his hand to me three times and three times I refused. How could I offer that symbol of friendship when he had just stabbed us in the back?
When Obama ran for president, he promised immigration would be the top priority in the first 100 days. I still wanted to believe, so I cast my vote for him again, despite the disappointment from 2006. He broke that promise, opting instead to spend his political capital on passing his signature health care reform program. He went on to deport more than 400,000 immigrants in his first year — far more than George W. Bush in his last year. On the anniversary of his first year in office, Hoy, the Spanish-language newspaper in Chicago, ran a full-page picture of the president on its cover under the headline “Promesa Por Cumplir” (“Unkept Promise”).
And still we held out hope that this president — our president — would make something happen. So again I listened eagerly when Obama delivered an immigration speech at American University in 2010 promising action on immigration reform. With a Democrat-controlled Senate and House, how could changes not be forthcoming? As always, Obama said all of the right things, while doing the opposite of what he pledged. He said, for example, how terrible it was to rip a mother from her child, even as he went on to become the deporter-in-chief — removing more than 2 million immigrants, including the mothers and fathers of some 150,000 U.S. citizen children, each year. In the run-up to his second election, Obama vowed that immigration would be the top priority in his second term. Latinos made their mark on election night 2012, and many voted with the plights of their undocumented mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and best friends in mind. We delivered for Obama, with 71 percent of us supporting the president. Only 27 percent favored Mitt Romney — a lower percentage than Republican candidates received in the last three presidential elections. Our votes made a difference: We helped Obama win the key states of Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado. We believed in Obama’s “Audacity of Hope.” We put him back in the White House expecting him to keep his end of the bargain — finally.
This year, Obama promised us action on immigration at the end of spring. Then he promised movement after the summer recess, when federal lawmakers returned to Washington. Now, he promises to take up the issue after the November elections.
Lie to me once, shame on you. Lie to me five times, what do you expect us to do? Obama and the Democrats who supported and encouraged him have little credibility among Latino voters. Obama may have done more to suppress the Latino vote through broken promises than any hostile action taken by the Republicans.
Last weekend, Obama backed off his most recent promise to push immigration reform through executive action to protect vulnerable Senate Democrats who would otherwise come under fire during the upcoming midterms. But by trying to shield those lawmakers, he may have harmed others.
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois Reps. Brad Schneider and Bill Foster — all Democrats who have kept their promises to the Latino community and consistently supported reform — will face reelection and risk losing if disaffected Latinos refuse to show up at the polls. Between now and the midterms, more than 60,000 Latinos and immigrants will very likely be separated from their loved ones and thousands of U.S. citizen children will be left without a mother or a father before the president acts. Most of these human beings have lived in the United States for more than a decade and do backbreaking work that Americans do not want to do, contributing to and growing industries that Americans cannot do without. All they ask is for a chance to get right with the law, legally enter the workforce and stay together with their families. Obama’s broken promise and delayed action will mean many of them will be deported.
Their suffering and that of their families, friends and children should weigh on the consciences of the president and the Democrats who encouraged Obama to put off — again and again and again and again and again — the push for immigration reform.
As for our own plan of action? It’s hard for me to imagine many of us voting for Republicans, who have at times been downright hostile to immigrant communities. But maybe Latinos in places like Colorado, Florida, Arkansas and North Carolina — states with closely contested Senate or governor’s races — should sit this election out. Maybe only by paying a price at the polls will Democrats finally stop throwing us under the bus.