Spurned by Obama on Immigration, Will Latino Voters Stay Home?

Democrats like Mark Udall are counting on support from Hispanics, but some feel betrayed.

DENVER—The sun beat down on a Denver shopping center Saturday as a few customers shuffled in and out of a Hispanic market. A man placed bag after bag into his car's backseat, slinging curse words at President Obama.

Hernandez Sandoval's family is legal, documented, with papers to prove it, the Coloradan says. But he feels the president has forgotten his community. Too many promises to Latinos have gone unfulfilled. Sandoval paused, rummaging through his wallet and producing two "I voted" stickers from past elections.

"But, no más, no más," he says, reiterating his disengagement from the political process this election cycle, his disillusionment with government.

The question this election cycle— particularly for Democrats in tough races, such as Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado—is how many other Latino voters feel the same way, and whether the intense get-out-the-vote efforts of Democratic campaigns and outside groups can convince them otherwise.

Many Latinos feel that four Democratic Senate candidates in close races—in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina—have chosen reelection over Latino interests. They feel Obama has done the same as his vulnerable colleagues, delaying executive action that could defer the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

A half hour before Sandoval expressed his frustration, activists less than two miles down the road in Denver rallied to mobilize the Latino vote. A series of speakers fired up the canvassers to knock on doors, one of three such events across the state that day targeting voters, like Sandoval, who need some encouragement.

"Every door that you're knocking, every person that you're talking to today, this is about reminding that we do have the power," Rocio Sáenz, a Mi Familia Vota board member, said. "And when we go out in 17 days, on Nov. 4, we actually are voting for our families, we're voting for our community, and we're voting for the future that we want. And we are going to be the ones dictating what future we want."

With Latinos comprising more than 14 percent of the state's eligible voters—U.S. citizens 18 and older—their ballots matter in Colorado, where Udall is narrowly trailing his GOP opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, in several recently released polls. About 55 percent of Latinos plan to vote for Udall, 14 percent for Gardner, and 30 percent haven't definitively decided on a candidate, according to a Oct. 14 Latino Decisions and NCLR Action Fund poll.

Latino advocates for both parties are swarming the state, while other ostensibly nonpartisan organizations are targeting voter turnout. Several groups have joined to form the Colorado Immigration Voter Accountability Project, which has spent more than 5,200 hours canvassing counties across the state since the beginning of September, according to Ben Hanna, the national political field director for the Center for Community Change Action.

The community has identified other top priorities, including job creation, education, and health care. But immigration is the gateway issue that filters candidates who would best represent Latino interests, Ben Monterroso, Mi Familia Vota executive director, said in a phone interview last month.

This means that actions—or in this case, inaction—can have consequences.

"There is no question that the failure of the president to keep his promise yet again is demobilizing Latino voters," said Gary Segura, cofounder of Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm. "There's just no question in that. The enthusiasm rate has dropped. People are frustrated—actually, they're more than frustrated. They're angry."

Segura has no doubt that a number of potential Latino votes for Democrats will be left on the table as a consequence of the president's delay. It doesn't mean Latinos are voting for Republicans. And it doesn't mean there's a massive boycott (though at least one group, Presente Action, is calling for Latinos to leave the Senate box unchecked in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina). Rather, these votes left uncast nationwide can be chocked up to a lack of enthusiasm.

"It comes to Election Day," Segura said, "are you going to get off the couch and stand in line? Are you going to ask your boss to get out of work an hour early when you're really not that excited?"

Leaves littered the sidewalk of a tree-lined street in Boulder where Lizarlette Alvarez and Abel Perez stood navigating the mobile canvassing app MiniVAN. The map's pins showed the pair's targeted voters, the doors Alvarez and Perez would knock on that mid-October Sunday.

They had a message, and it's one that Garrison Bennet, CIRC Action Fund's Boulder County canvass coordinator, explained earlier that day to the small group gathered at the Boulder Public Library. Seated at a conference table, Bennet opened with CIRC Action Fund's bottom line on comprehensive immigration reform: "We cannot wait another election," he told the canvassers. "Thousands and thousands of families are being affected. The message of families is something we're really getting across to people because the cost of this inaction is that more and more people are being separated."

Canvassing is the 26-year-old Perez's first job on the books. When he was young, he trekked across Mexico with his mother and siblings, crossing the border into the United States and to Colorado.

He graduated from high school. He watched as his brother was deported back to Mexico. He worked under-the-table jobs, until recently, when he received temporary relief under a previous Obama executive order that defers deportation for childhood arrivals.

There's passion behind his typically even-keeled voice when he talks of Obama's decision to delay executive action for all undocumented immigrants. The announcement was more than frustrating; it was maddening.

"The more we wait, the more families get separated," he said. "It's messed up."

The Libre Initiative—a nonprofit with a conservative mind-set that aims to advance Hispanic interests—is hoping to use this to its advantage.

"A lot of people are now looking at the alternative," Executive Director Daniel Garza said. "They're back at the crossroads, and I believe that's what's happening in America, that the Latino vote is back at the crossroads."

The group is on the ground in eight states, including Colorado, which is a "drop in the bucket" compared with what the Left has historically done in the Latino community, Garza said, and those efforts have rewarded Democrats with the Latino vote. In Colorado, the organization began phone-banking at the beginning of the summer and canvassing in late August, according to Andrew Sanchez, the Libre Initiative's Southwest field manager.

The Republican National Committee is also ramping up outreach to the Latino community, a bloc that hasn't been a focal point for the party in the past. After the 2012 election, a party report called it "imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities to welcome in new members of our Party." RNC Hispanic initiatives staffers are in now in 10 states with close races, according to Ali Pardo, RNC Hispanic media press secretary.

"Where we are really resonating in the Hispanic community is on the issues that matter to them most," Pardo said. "On the economy, on education, offering better choices for parents to send their kids to a better school."

The Udall campaign, meanwhile, is reaching out through Spanish language radio and television ads. And Latino leaders, such as former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and state Rep. Joe Salazar, are attending trail stops and canvass kick-offs. On Saturday, the campaign held a Latino Day of Action to get out the vote and spread Udall's message on college affordability, the minimum wage and comprehensive immigration reform (in early September, Udall said in a statement he was "disappointed" that Obama delayed executive action).

About 52 percent of Hispanic Democrats surveyed nationwide said the party is not doing a good job representing their views on illegal immigration, according to a Pew Research Center poll survey released late last month. Advocates are working to ensure that this doesn't lead to voter disengagement.

On Saturday, members from the Colorado Immigration Voter Accountability Project packed a small room inside the Denver Justice For All Center to reiterate the message, as Sáenz, the Mi Familia Vota board member, said, that the vote is the Latino community's voice, and its power—even for those who can't legally cast ballots.

"For those that we know cannot vote yet," Sáenz, who is also the Service Employees International Union's international executive vice president, said at the canvass kick-off, "they know they have family members that can, or neighbors that can, or co-workers that can. And we are going to make sure that we put that message out."

"We are going to demonstrate that we have the power," Sáenz said, her voice growing louder. "And when we say, 'Si se puede?"

"Si se puede," the group of canvassers shouted back.

"When we say, 'Si se puede?" Sáenz repeated.

"Si se puede!"