There are 12 million elephants in the ornate auditorium of the Department of the Interior as various dignitaries and invited guests gather for the First White House Forum on American Latino Heritage. The panelists gamely march through broad issues like, “Where do you see Latinos in 5 to 10 years?” But the fate of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants goes largely ignored. It is not on a carefully calibrated list of topics.
The panelists instead extol our ethnic pride, history and values, pointing also to the drumbeat of demographics that will make America a majority Latino country by the end of the 21 Century. But because the polite audience has strong ties to the Democratic party, no one points the finger at the White House for the bait and switch that got Barack Obama elected with a cascade of Latino votes, only to be left out in the cold, to be terrorized by local officials in states like Arizona and Alabama.
Many speakers mention the sour economy, which is understandable given the community’s crippling unemployment epidemic, 11% and counting. But, there is scant mention of those undocumented immigrants, the illegal aliens for whom Mr. Obama’s election shockingly heralded not a new era of civility, but instead a harsh and sweeping federal crackdown of Draconian proportion.
Recently, Washington’s anti-immigrant crackdown has eased, though many believe the move is an election season ploy to re-energize Latino voters.
In fact, this “Forum” has the feel of a calculated political event; a reminder that as far as Latinos are concerned the President’s heart is in the right place, and that he again deserves the extraordinary Hispanic support that got him elected in the first place.
The highlight comes before the President even arrives at the event, when saintly Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, and Javier Palomares, the urbane president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce blast those state governments currently engaged in hunting down the downtrodden migrants whose hard work contributes so much to those states’ economies. Palomares points out how self-defeating those state actions have been, costing them hundreds of millions in boycotts and lost economic activity.
He also adds a refreshing note of realism to the talk of ethnic pride when he tells the audience that, “we can’t be Hispanic for a living.”
During the first break I have a chance to interview on camera Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor who made history as America’s first Latina Cabinet secretary.
Secretary Solis criticizes the anti-immigrant activism of Alabama, Arizona and the rest, saying, “it’s way too late to have 50 different immigration plans…” And, “….some very harsh laws are being passed.” But aside from acknowledging the “frustration” in the community she skillfully dances around the notion that her administration has been part of the problem, not the solution.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose family traces its Colorado roots back several centuries is a former senator I first interviewed when he and colleagues Ted Kennedy and John McCain (yes, that John McCain) seemed on the verge of passing comprehensive immigration reform; a vision that in retrospect seems quaint and hopelessly naïve.
His interview headline is that whatever problems with the Obama Administration most Latinos will never vote for Republicans because the GOP is to blame for the relentless pursuit of the undocumented and for it’s unwavering opposition to immigration reform.
“What about Rick Perry”, I ask?
Secretary Salazar allows that Gov. Perry is an exception, but adds, “Look how he was pilloried for even suggesting that the Dream Act is a good idea.” He is right. It is only the noxious position on immigration related topics of the other GOP candidates that keeps more Latinos from jumping to the Republican side.
The President is introduced by Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry, whose adoring mom is Latina. We respect and admire noble Sgt. Petry, but given the partisan speech the President is about to deliver the war hero’s participation seems unnecessary and manipulative. I can just see the bright White House aide who told Press Secretary Jay Carney, ‘I’ve got a great idea. Let’s have the President introduced by the Latino Medal of Honor recipient!’
The frantic White House aides running this event are clearly petrified that I will shout out a question to the boss. They have seated me as far away from the stage as possible: Row R. They are apparently so worried that I will rush the stage, they have placed an intern alongside me. “What’s your name,” I ask. “I’m just an intern from Maine,” the lanky kid looming over me answers.
In the distance, the President enters stage left to a standing ovation. After a brief nod to the importance of diversity and inclusion and the need to remember the historic contributions of America’s Latinos, he launches into the same forceful stump speech he’s been giving on his stalled Jobs Bill and the Senate’s failure Tuesday night to pass it.
The speech sounds as frustrated as the President seems melancholy. Oh those Republican rascals in the Senate. After he shakes hands and poses for photographs with those unthreatening enough to be seated up front, he exits trailed by the caravan of aides and Secret Service.
Wednesday’s afternoon closing statement is delivered by our nation’s first Latina on the Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who will likely be on the losing end of many 5-4 decisions this session, including one on Obamacare. By that point I was already on the train home, sorry I missed the chance to pay my respects to the brilliant jurist who used to live in Co-op City along with my Aunt Ana. Give the President credit for his appointments. I wish his immigration policy was as progressive.
But now to him and me. If President Obama really wants to talk about issues affecting the Latino community, he should stop ducking me. It is two years and ten months since I first asked for an interview, and I can’t even get his press secretary on the phone. Mr. Obama will probably give an interview to the Dog Food Channel before he gets to me.
Anyway, I’m tired of being put in the backrow.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.