Skip to Navigation

Obama and the Latino Vote: From Policy Failure to Political Success?

John D. Skrentny and Jane Lilly Lopez , University of California, San Diego
October 16, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, John D. Skrentny and Jane Lilly Lopez examine the crucial Latino vote and President Obama's record on immigration reform. A contributor to the RSF book, Reaching for a New Deal: Ambitious Governance, Economic Meltdown, and Polarized Politics in Obama's First Two Years, Skrentny is the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Lopez is a graduate student in sociology at UCSD.

Obama’s support among Latino voters remains unchanged from 2008 despite the failure of his central promise to Latino voters: that he would pass comprehensive immigration reform. In actuality, Obama did not even come close to passing immigration reform. The administration never promoted a bill, and no bill reached the floor of either the House or the Senate. How does failure in policy lead to success in politics? The answer is that Obama used his executive authority to do just enough on policy to signal his support for Latinos. The Republicans, meanwhile, have contributed by further alienating Latinos even as their presence in the electorate has grown.

Why was comprehensive immigration reform such a failure in Obama’s first term? Comprehensive immigration reform has come in different versions over the years, but always retains the basic model of a "grand bargain" that pairs mass legalization of undocumented immigrants with efforts to control the border with Mexico to prevent a new population of undocumented immigrants from forming.

The Politics of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The reasons Obama failed to pass reform can be stated succinctly. First, by the 2000s, much of the electorate and members of Congress had adopted negative attitudes toward undocumented immigrants and comprehensive reform. Many saw these immigrants as undeserving lawbreakers, and they saw reform as doomed to fail. This was because a 1986 comprehensive reform legalized almost 3 million migrants, but left the borders uncontrolled – by the mid-2000s, there were about 10 million new undocumented migrants in the country. For this reason, even many Democrats were skeptical of reform.

This factor helps us to understand Obama’s failure to enact reform, as well as George W. Bush’s failure. He tried twice in his two terms, and could not even rally a majority of his own party.

Another major factor was Republican opposition to nearly all Obama initiatives. Some Republicans had sponsored comprehensive reform under Bush. Under Obama, comprehensive reform did not have a single GOP sponsor. Even former stalwart supporters, such and John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), abandoned the effort.

The final factor was the institutional structure of Congress. There are so many "veto points" that it is not difficult for a determined minority to pull the plug on any legislation.

The Executive Route

Failing at legislation, Obama avoided the Republicans and institutional obstacles in Congress by boldly going it alone to signal support for Latinos. Responding to the negative moral meaning of “illegal immigrants,” Obama targeted a legalization effort at the most deserving of the undocumented: those who would have been eligible for the “DREAM Act.” This category included those who came into the country when they were fifteen or younger, and thus as minors moving with parents were never “lawbreakers” in the true sense of the term. Moreover, to benefit from Obama’s plan, they had to be productive members of society: either students or soldiers. Finally, the plan was not a pathway to citizenship, it was simply a Department of Homeland Security announcement that there was no plan to deport them. It could even be reversed—if the wrong person became president.

It was a weak effort when compared to most comprehensive reform bills, but it signaled that Obama cared. It was also a dare to Republican candidate Mitt Romney to say he would squash even this effort for a sympathetic constituency. He has not done so.

The Republican Stance

Still, Republicans also have been partners in pushing Latinos into the arms of Democrats. They did more to alienate Latinos and did less to signal concern. To rally the Tea Party base, congressional Republicans and every 2012 Republican presidential candidate opposed pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—even discussing the possibility of putting up electrified fences to prevent more from coming. Though mostly mum on Obama’s administrative actions, they have not heeded the advice of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has counseled warmer language when discussing immigration.

Republicans hoped their platform of tax cuts and opposition to abortion and gay marriage would woo Latino social conservatives, and utilized Latino Republicans, such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and New Mexico governor Susan Martinez, at the 2012 Republican National Convention. But these efforts appear to be too little, too late to win a substantial portion of this constituency. Republicans now appear powerless to change course. Even Mitt Romney is worried about the demographic destiny of his party. In his secretly recorded speech to donors, he stated, “if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past, why we're in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

To be sure, Latino voters care about issues besides immigration. The economy, education and health care are top concerns. But to get Latinos motivated to vote at all, and to rally the Latino leadership, actions that signal concern specifically for Latinos are often key. Obama—and the Republicans—appear to have done just enough to keep Obama’s Latino support strong.