At Washington's immigration reform march, a warning from Latinos

Immigrants and activists turned out by the tens of thousands to urge President Obama to keep his campaign promises on immigration reform.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Immigration reform demonstrators carried an American flag as they chanted slogans during a march for comprehensive immigration policy reform Sunday on the National Mall.

From the tens of thousands who rallied for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington on Sunday, the message to President Obama and the Democrats was clear: Make us a priority or don’t count on us in November elections.

The activists and immigrants traveled from around the country and converged on the National Mall, blocks from where House Democrats worked feverishly to secure last-minute votes for Mr. Obama’s landmark healthcare overhaul bill. Waving American flags and chanting Obama’s campaign slogan “Si se puede,” they called for legislation that would give 12 million immigrants currently residing in the United States illegally a pathway to citizenship.

Obama had promised during his campaign to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority in his first year – a promise he reiterated last Thursday to Rep. Luis Gutierrez in exchange for his vote on the healthcare reform bill and again on Sunday to the crowd assembled at the Mall via a video address shown on giant screens.

“I have always pledged to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system, and that’s a commitment that I reaffirm today,” he said.

But some demonstrators, like Rigoberto Rodriguez, a Chicagoan who voted for Obama and the Democrats in 2008, were disappointed and frustrated by Obama’s lack of action on immigration.

“If he doesn’t keep his word, we’re not going to vote. He promised he would reform immigration. If there’s not reform, we won’t support him,” he said.

The march’s leadership echoed this message at a panel discussion with reporters last week, when they released a new poll by Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen.

“What Sergio Bendixen concluded,” explained Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice in a phone conversation, “is that if Democrats don’t fight for immigration reform, there’s a chance that Latino immigrant voters will stay home in November” – a scary outcome for Democrats in key battleground states like Illinois, Colorado, and Nevada, the argument goes. [Editor's note: The original misspelled Mr. Sharry's name.]

But Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says Latinos recognize that this is a politically difficult climate for Obama to pass immigration reform.

“That’s the ultimate card grass roots can play.... It’s not an empty threat, but it’s not an immediate threat.... I think Latino voters have shown that they care a lot about healthcare and jobs. Immigration is not the only thing they care about.”

He says he doesn’t think any major damage has been done to the relationship between Obama and Democrats and Latinos.

At the rally, Raquel Batista, a Colorado State University student whose parents were migrant farmworkers, says it’s hard not to get impatient for change.

“It’s frustrating that we haven’t seen change. We haven’t seen what we expected. But I understand that things in the government take time.” And she says she plans on voting for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet because of the things he’s already done for the Latino community.

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