A leading Latino lawmaker asserted Monday that Latinos, angered at President Obama for his failure to push immigration reform legislation, could stay home from the polls this year.
"People are angry and disillusioned," U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in an interview.
Gutierrez criticized the Obama administration for not pushing harder for legislation that would provide an opportunity for legalization for some immigrants. But he conceded that he lacks the votes in the House to pass the bill he backs.
Aiming to revive the immigration reform effort, Gutierrez flew to Los Angeles to headline a town hall meeting Monday evening at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, known as "La Placita," which has long declared itself a sanctuary for illegal immigrants.
With pro-reform banners and chants, hundreds of immigrants and their supporters turned out at the forum, which featured elected officials, labor leaders and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
The diverse slate of speakers included the Rev. Eric Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said Latinos and African Americans share a common interest in fighting "slave wages."
One Korean illegal immigrant described his drive to excel as a graduate of UC Santa Barbara who dreams of contributing to the country as a professor.
And Beck drew cheers and a standing ovation when he declared, "A person's immigration status alone is not the business of the Los Angeles Police Department."
Earlier, Gutierrez told The Times that Obama's failure to push immigration reform was symbolized by his State of the Union address last Wednesday, when he devoted 38 of about 7,300 words to the issue.
The "throwaway line," Gutierrez said, was the final straw for many activists who have been perturbed by the continued deportations and other enforcement actions without real progress on reform legislation.
Removals of illegal immigrants have increased under the Obama administration. In fiscal 2009, they grew to 387,790 from 291,060 in 2007 under the Bush administration, government data show.
Asked to respond to Gutierrez's remarks, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said in a written statement that the administration remained "committed to confronting this problem" through administrative and enforcement tools, along with working with Congress toward a solution.
Gutierrez said he was short at least 18 votes in the House to pass his legislation, which would legalize most of the nation's 12 million illegal migrants, provide more family visas, increase worker protections and offer other reforms.
He acknowledged that selling the bill to the American public at a time of double-digit unemployment would not be easy.
But he and Los Angeles labor leader Maria Elena Durazo argued that legalizing undocumented immigrants would help the nation's economic recovery by raising their wages and allowing them to spend more consumer dollars.
To revive the issue's visibility, immigrant rights supporters are organizing a national mobilization on March 21 to take 100,000 people to Washington, D.C.
Without progress, the congressman warned that many Latinos would stay home from the polls.
According to exit polls, Obama received 70% of the Latino vote in 2008, boosting him to victory in the swing states of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida.
A poll last December by Latino Decisions, a research team specializing in the Latino vote, found that significant numbers of Latino voters would defect without passage of immigration reform.
"Democrats have to be very careful that they don't push Latinos from frustration to an active attitude of punishing them for inaction," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan public policy analysis organization.
Gonzalez said 1,000 Latino leaders from 15 states who recently met in Texas agreed to launch an "accountability campaign" to publicize whether House and Senate members support immigration reform and withhold votes from those who do not.
But Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican who publishes a nonpartisan analysis of California elections, questioned whether Latinos would defect from Democrats.
"What are they going to do, vote for Republicans who won't even bring up the topic?" he asked.
"The shrillness of Republican rhetoric on immigration reform has more of an impact on Latino voting behavior than the lack of a rapid response from the Obama White House."