Obama's Relationship With Hispanic Voters Hinges On GOP

When you think about the party that has problems with Latino voters, it's usually the GOP. In 2012, they lost the Hispanic vote by more than 2 to 1, and long-term demographic changes could make that gap bigger. But President Obama and the Democrats also have their own problems with the Hispanic vote.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. We've heard this cited many times. In 2012, Republicans lost the Hispanic vote by more than 2 to 1. Well, it turns out President Obama and the Democrats have problems of their own when it comes to Latino votes. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama promised to pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office. Five years later, it hasn't happened. In the meantime, the president has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants, 2 million so far. Polls show that is hurting him with Hispanics. Frank Sharry is with America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group.

FRANK SHARRY: The president made a bad bet, that if he ramped up enforcement to record levels he would win over skeptical Republicans who might support him on passing immigration reform. It is highly likely that that's going to turn out to not work and what is likely is that he's going to be forced with not only the responsibility for record deportations, but the obligation to do something about it.

LIASSON: For years, Mr. Obama resisted the demands of Hispanic groups to address the immigration problem through executive action beyond the so-called Dreamers, young people brought here illegally as children. Here he is responding to a heckler.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition. And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws.

LIASSON: That was in November. By March in the face of increasing pressure from Latino activists, the president asked his director of homeland security to review deportation enforcements. Last week, on PBS, Jay Johnson said the administration has discretion when it comes to deportations, but...

JAY JOHNSON: We have to be careful not to preempt Congress in certain area.

LIASSON: Translation, although the president hasn't been shy about preempting Congress in other areas, on immigration, the strategy is to give John Boehner some space to see if the House Speaker can finally convince his own party to pass immigration reform this summer. In the meantime, the president is trying something else, identity politics.

MAYOR JULIAN CASTRO: Thank you. My fellow Democrats, my fellow Americans, my fellow Texans.

LIASSON: That's Julian Castro giving the keynote address at the Democratic Convention in 2012. Castro is the mayor of San Antonio, Texas and the man who's likely to be named the new secretary of housing and urban development. There are many good reasons to nominate Castro. It gives the Democrats brightest Latino star some invaluable executive experience, which many Democrats hope will elevate Castro just in case someone, say Hillary Clinton, wants to put him on the ticket in 2016.

And, says analyst Ruben Navarrete, it will earn the president points with Hispanics.

RUBEN NAVARETTE: It's hard to find in the Hispanic community a bigger political star than Julian Castro and here's why. A full two-thirds, almost 70 percent of the Hispanic community are Mexican or Mexican-American and for them, this Mexican-American mayor, they're really proud of him. I think they're a little protective of him, too.

LIASSON: Which means it should be very hard for the Republicans, desperate to improve their own standing with Latinos, to beat up on Castro in a confirmation hearing. No one in either party disputes that nominating Castro is a smart political move, but it also highlights one of the Democrats weaknesses with Latinos.

Despite their big advantages at the ballot box, outside of the House of Representatives, there are surprisingly few Hispanic Democrats in office. Republican Daniel Garza of the LIBRE Initiative proudly ticks off the list of Republican Hispanic stars, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz.

DANIEL GARZA: You know, on the Republican side, we have two senators and two state governors. While on the other side, yeah, it is a very skinny bench and the fact that you're going to showcase, you know, somebody at a mayor level to a cabinet position reflects that.

LIASSON: So right now, with respect to Hispanics, the president is in a holding pattern. He can appeal to Latinos by appointing Julian Castro, but on immigration reform, he's stuck waiting to see if House Republicans will act on legislation. If they don't, says Frank Sharry, then Mr. Obama will have some important decisions to make.

SHARRY: President Obama has a lot to do before he leaves office to determine whether Latinos view Republicans as horrible and Democrats as less bad or Republicans as the party that blocked immigration reform and Obama is the guy who, after rocky start, stepped in and took bold after to protect millions o people.

LIASSON: So the president's relationship with the fastest growing segment of the American electorate depends, at least for the moment, on what his Republican opponents decide to do. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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