Latino Voters In Southwest Key To Next Election
Juan Sepúlveda (center) is the White House Director for the Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. He leads a discussion at a recent summit for Latino voters in New Mexico.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
October 28, 2011

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- The Latino vote could tip the scale in favor of one party over the other in the 2012 presidential election. This is especially true in in states like Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona with growing Latino populations.

On Thursday, White House officials visited Las Cruces, in southeast New Mexico, where they held a community summit aimed at Hispanics.

A day earlier in the small community of Del Cerro – just outside Las Cruces – a man known to locals as “Shark” sold spicy seafood cocktails out of an aging white RV. His clients kicked up dust as they drove up in big Chevrolet trucks, most accompanied by wives or co-workers. They gathered around the RV slurping squid from red plastic cups.

It's a good spot to take the temperature of politics.

Salvador Mejia, wearing dark sunglasses and a black t-shirt, waited in line to order. He owns a cement business in Las Cruces and said he was not happy about how things are going with the current administration.

“We want to switch parties. Things didn't go well with Obama,” Mejia said. “Nothing was accomplished with regards to jobs and the economy. Nothing was done about immigration either.”

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Participants at a summit for Latino voters in New Mexico discuss ethics during one of the smaller, breakout sessions.

Disapproval like the one expressed by Mejia is growing among the Hispanic community, notes Gabriel Sanchez, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

“Although the Latino population has higher approval ratings for President Obama than the general population, there's been a pretty significant decline in their attitudes toward the president,” Sanchez said.

The professor contributes to the political blog Latino Decisions, which put out a poll in August that showed a declining approval rating for Obama among Hispanics.

“I would say that the Latino population is still up for grabs,” Mejia said. “Maybe 40 percent (could go) the GOP's way, which could open the door for a GOP candidate to be able to emerge victorious.”

At the community summit held at the Las Cruces Convention Center, White House officials talked up the administration's achievements, like expanding health care for children. Discussions ranged from education to small business opportunities to foreclosures.

One audience member asked about the huge increase in immigrant deportations under the Obama administration. A White House representative said the president must enforce the law and that 60 percent of those deported had committed serious crimes.

Lila Garza owns a green energy business in Las Cruces. She was born in Mexico and is now a U.S. citizen. She's also a former Republican who voted for President Obama in 2008.

“One of the biggest reasons I switched to a Democrat is that I really hate the way the immigration issue has been politicized to the disadvantage of our people,” Garza said.

She said she's willing to be patient with the president because of the opposition he faces in Congress.

“I know that his hands are tied because the Republicans are not supporting him,” she said. “They support him on absolutely nothing. So I hope that the Hispanic community understands that.”

The President will probably need much more of that understanding in order to remain in office for another four years. White House officials will travel to Denver on Saturday for another summit aimed at Hispanics that will address jobs and the economy.