National Voices

Wednesday, Feb 27 2013 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Why Latinos stick with President Obama

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    Esther Cepeda

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In a 2011 column, I said President Obama believed that Latino voters were stupid. It pains me to say this, but lately I've begun to wonder whether Latino voters indeed aren't thinking clearly when it comes to immigration.

In that column, I expressed hope that Latino voters would punish Obama at election time for failing to live up to his promise to lead on immigration reform. I observed that he'd been spectacularly insulting in how he'd gone about doing outreach on the issue earlier that year.

Calling on such public policy luminaries as Don Francisco, the host of a weekly variety show and jiggle-fest, "Sabado Gigante," and Piolin Sotelo, a California-based shock jock, to be part of a group of "influential Hispanics," Obama got them to publicly state that he must obey the letter of the law and wait for Congress to act. At that time, I also quoted immigrant activists who were trying to get Latinos to the polls, but asking them to not vote for president in order to send Obama a message.

Despite some influential Hispanics actually calling for a no-Obama vote in the days leading up to the election, we know the president won with hefty Latino support. Still, at the end of January, Obama traveled to Las Vegas to deliver his support for a compromise, leaving those who were paying attention to the substance of his remarks to note, as did Julianne Hing in a tweet, "Obama's very first immigration reform promise is more of the same: enforcement, enforcement, enforcement."

In mid-February, USA Today reported that last year U.S. immigration officials intentionally increased expulsions of immigrants convicted of minor crimes such as traffic violations in order to meet their criminal deportation targets.

Soon after, when the president's framework for an immigration reform was leaked, tongues started wagging that Obama was actually hoping to tank a grand immigration bargain so Democrats could have a hammer with which to pummel Republicans during the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.

The evidence that Obama is not really leading on immigration is incontrovertible, but he's still got Latinos wrapped around his little finger. According to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and USA Today: "There has been a complete turnaround in how Hispanics view Obama's handling of immigration." Today, 63 percent approve while only 27 percent disapprove.

"In November 2011, that margin was reversed: 28 percent of Hispanics approved of the job Obama was doing on immigration policy while 59 percent disapproved," Pew reports. Overall, 44 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling immigration policy, compared with 43 percent who disapprove. "Approval is up 12 points from November 2011 and marks the first time in Obama's presidency that disapproval has not outweighed approval," a change that Pew says was "driven in large part by improved ratings from Hispanics."

Why?

I'm infuriated that Obama is manipulating voters with this issue and I just don't understand why other Latinos aren't angry, too. Are we just that dumb?

"No, it comes down to three things: status, partisanship and trust," said Stephen A. Nuno, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. "For one, Latinos are very diverse and they're as split along class lines as is the rest of the country. You have Latinos that aren't affected by immigration policy, such as the wealthy Latinos who have been in the U.S. for multiple generations. And, of course, status also can mean citizenship status, which is varied among Latinos as well.

"Then there's partisanship," Nuno told me. "Party is as important to Latinos as to other folks. Latinos are loyal to Democrats and when your party is doing something wrong, even to the people you empathize with the most, you're more likely to give them that latitude.

"Last is trust. When you distrust the alternative so much, you're willing to tolerate a lot more from the one you do trust. It's kind of like a battered child who still loves their parents -- they might beat you but they're your parents so you still trust them."

This is what happens when a whole body of voters get dehumanized and demonized by an opposing party: They become unable to realize how disrespected, neglected and taken for granted they are by their own.

It isn't just gullibility, it's tragedy.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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