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updated: 10/11/2010 10:50 AM

The disillusioned Latino voter

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From poll taxes to literacy tests to outright voter intimidation, Americans have a long history of trying to suppress the turnout of Latino voters.

It turns out they missed one: Just let the political process run its course.

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Politicians will break their promises, duck tough issues, and try to fool voters into thinking that they care about them and their interests when really they only care about being re-elected. The system will be gridlocked as special interests pursue their narrow and self-serving agendas at the expense of the greater good. And, once Latinos figure all this out, they will become disillusioned like many other voters and just stay home.

This is apparently what's happening. A new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that only 51 percent of Latinos say they are absolutely certain they'll vote on Nov. 2, compared to 70 percent of all voters. That's bad news for liberals since the survey found that Latinos prefer Democrats to Republicans, 65 percent to 22 percent.

The media instinctively call it apathy. But it's something deeper a sense of futility.

Many Latinos have now learned the same lesson familiar to other voters over the years: You can participate in the process, put your faith in elected officials and believe that things can be different. Yet in the end, usually nothing changes.

In the weeks leading up to the election, President Obama is traveling the country trying to get Democratic voters fired up and ready to go to the polls, but few in the media have bothered to ask the obvious questions: Why aren't those voters on the left already fired up and ready to go? Why don't they seem to care much which party runs Congress? And how much of this indifference is tied to Obama's disappointing performance as president and his tendency to duck tough issues?

Take immigration reform. While campaigning in 2008, Obama promised to make it a top priority to fix a broken system with comprehensive reform that tightened the borders while providing a pathway to earned legal status for the undocumented. Latino voters bought the line and handed over 67 percent of their votes to someone who, in his short political career, hadn't done much of anything for Latinos to earn that kind of support.

Once elected, Obama did virtually nothing in his first year for immigration reform. What did Obama do in his second year? After criticizing Republicans for taking an "enforcement only approach to immigration reform, he went in the same direction and delivered only on the border enforcement portion of his pledge. In August, he signed into law a $600 million bill to beef up security on the U.S.-Mexico border. The money will go to hire 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and other law enforcement officials and launch two more unmanned aerial drones to monitor the border.

Latinos care about other issues besides immigration. The Hispanic Pew Center survey found that they list education, jobs, and health care as their top concerns. But, in a surprising development, immigration now ranks fourth. It typically registers much further down the list.

Clearly, the issue is on the minds of many Latinos just as it is with other Americans. With the dust-up over an Arizona statute that requires local police to enforce federal immigration law, and the failure of Congress and the White House to enact reform, the survey found that two-thirds of Latinos had discussed immigration with someone in the past year.

Now Obama wants Latinos to turn out and vote so that Democrats can preserve control of Congress.

Those would be the same Democrats who have run both houses since 2007 and yet never tackled immigration reform because to do so in an honest and meaningful way would antagonize organized labor. And unions remain a major contributor to the coffers of the Democratic Party.

If you really care about fixing the immigration system, why keep in power the same people who have been undermining that process? Here's how it works: In politics, you don't get your concerns addressed by continuing to reward those who refuse to address them. You only ensure that you'll continue to be ignored and never be taken seriously by those who want something for nothing.

If Latinos are tired of winding up with nothing, they might decide they have something better to do on Election Day.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2010, The Washington Post Writers Group

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