One Hundred Days

Latinos turned out in record numbers to help elect the nation’s first black president, by nearly a two to one margin---and Latino groups assert it would have been nearly impossible for Barack Obama to win without the Hispanic vote. Now that he’s been in office for the proverbial 100 days, what type of grade does President Obama get from Latino observers of his new administration? Generally a positive one, with a majority saying it’s still too early in the game to give a fair score.

“I think we need to cut him a break. He’s dealing with an economy that’s in crisis and a whole host of other issues, but I don’t see him not paying attention to issues that are of concern to the Latino community,” says Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas). “For example, the number one issue is comprehensive immigration reform. That’s the one thing I hear in my travels around the country, that Latinos expect from this administration.”

Groups that focus on immigration reform say they feel heartened that President Obama has said he would begin a major push on the issue. “President Obama is demonstrating the leadership that’s needed to move such a complex and complicated issue forward,” said Maribel Hastings, senior advisor for the group America’s Voice. “It shows an initiative on the part of the White House to take on the issue.”

Rep. Reyes adds that the president is also moving forward on other issues of concern to the Latino community, such as border security. Reyes’ congressional district encompasses a portion of the Texas border with Mexico.“And as chairman of the [House] Intelligence Committee, we’ve been working on this issue for some time now, and this administration has stepped up in a major way.” An Obama administration plan calls for additional Border Patrol agents and more crime-fighting equipment to the southern border, particularly to help stem the tide of so-called “narco-violence” cases. The administration is also considering sending National Guard troops to the region to help. Critics have called it a “good first step,” but say it has to be more---a lot more---and faster.

“While we appreciate the additional investigative resources, what we really need are more Border Patrol agents and officers at the bridges to conduct increased northbound and southbound inspections, as well as additional funding for local law enforcement along the border to deny Mexican drug cartels access to the United States,” says Texas Governor Rick Perry. “The state of Texas will continue to fill in the gaps until the federal government provides adequate resources necessary to secure our border and protect our citizens from those seeking to do us harm.”

But the president’s supporters call these criticisms “unfair” this early in the administration. The president needs the benefit of the doubt, says Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.). “[His critics] want everything to happen right away and that’s not realistic,” says the former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “The president is not ignoring any of the issues that concern us. The fact that he is talking with Mexico President Felipe Calderón about the border issues, that he’s talking about the housing crisis, that he’s talking about immigration, the economy, there is nothing he is leaving out. But these things take time.”

That is absolutely true, says Neyda Martínez, vice chair of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, a national group that lobbies to increase the number of Hispanic independent video filmmakers and producers.

“It really is too early. I don’t think it would be fair to judge him at this time. I think, though, his heart is in the right place,” Martínez said, adding, “It is also our job to push the issues forward and not wait for someone else to do something. He needs us to check him. This is where the grassroots building among our groups is so critical and so seminal. But it’s our job to help him do his job.”

Latino groups agree that the sense of “shared responsibility” is central to judging how the White House is doing as far as Latino issues are concerned. On immigration, says Maribel Hastings of America’s Voice, “it’s what Congress does, it’s what the community groups do. The president has made the first steps, has taken the initiative, but it takes everyone being involved.”

Roger Rivera, president of the National Hispanic Environmental Council, adds, “Things are moving very fast in this administration. There is a fast pace to things. But from my organization’s perspective he’s doing a great job. He’s turned around eight years of denying, for example, that there was a global warming crisis. He’s coming out with policies that are addressing that, and addressing energy independence and alternatives to energy.” Rivera, nonetheless, echoes what other Latinos say is the importance of involvement:“We need to make sure our voices are heard, that the doors are opened, and that the administration understand that after eight long, hard years of our community being under-resourced, that those days are over.”

The president is very well aware of the importance of the Latino community, adds Augustine Martínez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC). The USHCC was one of the first major groups Obama spoke with just a month and a half into his presidency.

“We were privileged to have this transformative leader come and engage the Hispanic community. President Obama has made many sweeping and necessary strides to reset the course of our nation and lead us toward full economic recovery,” Martínez said. “We still have a long way to go, but his actions since [he took office] January 20th have demonstrated a clear vision and a commitment to boldly engage Hispanics.”

One issue where President Obama has received much praise among Latinos is in the number of appointments to his Cabinet and overall administration. Two Hispanics are part of his Cabinet: Former senator Ken Salazar of Colorado is his Secretary of the Interior, and former congresswoman Hilda Solís is his Secretary of Labor. At the White House, former National Council of La Raza Vice President Cecilia Muñoz is Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Obama has named Latinos to a number of other high-level positions, including MALDEF president John Trasviña for Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Maryland Labor Secretary Tom Pérez as Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, at the Justice Department, considered one of the top sub-Cabinet positions; and Inés Triay as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management at the Department of Energy, just to name a few.

“LULAC works closely with the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Justice in monitoring any hate crimes against minorities and responding accordingly,” said Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, adding that LULAC applauds the appointment of Triay, Trasviña and other Latinos in the Obama Administration.

“Personnel is policy,” adds Roger Rivera. “It makes a huge difference to have Hilda Solís, Ken Salazar, and others in there. I think what we’re seeing is literally a difference of night and day with this administration, and our community is going to have to ensure we take advantage of that. It’s going to take hard work, but we’re prepared.”

Patricia Guadalupe