Obama must signal change for Latinos

Latinos voted in record numbers in last week's presidential election and threw their support overwhelmingly behind Democrat Barack Obama. Nationwide, 67% cast ballots for Obama -- compared with the 44% who voted to reelect President Bush in 2004. Moreover, a staggering 76% of young Latinos, ages 18 to 29, voted Democratic, according to exit polls.

The results upend strategist Karl Rove's plan to create a permanent Republican majority with socially conservative Latinos. It turns out the bloc is up for grabs.

Although a majority of Latino voters started the election year as supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, and many were skeptical that an African American president would be good for them, like much of the rest of the country they ended up putting the economy ahead of race or social issues and booting out the incumbents for Obama's promise of change.

In now-blue states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, many Latino voters have suffered housing foreclosures and seen their small businesses battered by the economic crisis. But they have an additional issue: immigration. Although they are U.S. citizens, most have a relative, friend or co-worker who aspires to become a legal resident. When undocumented immigrants are insulted or threatened, Latino citizens feel they are branded too.

Latino voters felt unrepresented, if not betrayed, by the Republican Party. And there's good reason for that. Republicans overwhelmingly supported the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which launched construction of the 700-mile U.S.-Mexico border fence and made it a crime to aid illegal residents. The law ignited protests across the country by Latinos who vowed to vote in future elections. Furthermore, many were angered by John McCain's retreat from immigration reform for what they saw as a sop to the hard-line Republican base.

Obama has said his priorities are to right the economy and aid the middle class. Although he has promised immigration reform in his first year, it is not first on his to-do list, and he is unlikely to spend political capital to halt construction of the border fence. But there are steps the new president can take to show Latino voters he means to take on the issue. He could put a stop to the factory raids the Department of Homeland Security has launched in Iowa, Mississippi and other states, including California, rounding up hundreds of undocumented workers. He might also forge bipartisan support for the so-called Dream Act, which would allow high-achieving, undocumented high school students to seek permanent residency if they go to college or enter the armed forces. However he does it, he must deliver on their dream of change.