April 24, 2008
Interview by Juan Guillermo Tornoe
A few days ago I had the privilege to receive Senator Obama’s answers to specific questions regarding Latinos, their values, their culture, and their importance to his candidacy. A very special thank you to all of you who made it possible.
Hispanic Trending: What similarities do you see between "Traditional" American Values and Hispanic Values?
Sen. Barack Obama: The challenges that Hispanics and all Americans face have been constant over the last twenty years – health, education, and economic insecurity. We need new leadership in Washington that understands the challenges working people and minorities face in this country.
I think most Americans share the same values, hopes, and aspirations, and the same struggles. Dr. King repeated often that our separate struggles – that of Latinos and African Americans – are really one. He would say that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It means that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t just a movement of African-Americans, but Latino Americans, and white Americans, and every American who believes that equality and opportunity are not just words to be said but promises to be kept.
HT: What values/characteristics do you admire the most from the Latino culture? Why?
Sen. Barack Obama: We cannot ignore the fact that Hispanics have contributed greatly to the social, economic, and cultural fabric of America. From the Hispanic community's deep-rooted history of service in the U.S. military to the battles of leaders like César Chávez for workers’ rights, Hispanic Americans have helped make this nation a great one. But despite all of the progress we’ve made, we know that there is more work to do. I believe the greatest contribution we’ve seen from the Latino community is their belief in the future and their belief in this country. It is a belief that inspires all Americans to remember what this country is about – people putting in the hard work required to make sure that the next generation is able to achieve its dreams. And it is a belief and an energy that led me to a life of public service almost twenty-five years ago, and one I’ll carry with me to Washington.
HT: Why did your campaign take so long to proactively reach out to Hispanics in comparison to several of the other candidates? We saw Latino people gravitating towards you, but not until later in the game we saw a fully orchestrated effort from your camp to reach out to them? Do you think jumpstarting this efforts earlier would've resulted in easy wins in key states like Texas?
Sen. Barack Obama: Our campaign has been actively reaching out to Hispanic voters since we started this campaign. In Iowa, where we campaigned for more than 10 months, we won the Latino vote. We set up bilingual phone banks and canvasses, radio and print ads, and bilingual mock caucuses. We were endorsed by Spanish-language newspapers in Iowa – and by La Opinion, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper – which was attributed to the fact that we informed voters about my record fighting for the Hispanic community and also brought many more Hispanics into the election process. We taught many new Hispanic voters how to participate in a caucus. And we’ve been doing this all across the country, where more than 40 states have already voted. As more and more Hispanics get engaged in this election, they’ve witnessed my proven ability to build support among Hispanic voters, and my commitment to continue engaging Hispanics in North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and the remaining contests. And I will continue to fight for the issues important to the Hispanic community such as education, immigration, health care, and finally bring the war in Iraq to an end.
HT: To what do you attribute your growing following among many Latinos?
Sen. Barack Obama: The more time voters have to get to know me, my track record, and my vision of bringing people together for change, the better I do – Hispanic voters are no exception. In Iowa, where we spent more than ten months campaigning, Hispanic voters chose us. We won the Hispanic vote in Virginia, Illinois, Connecticut, and almost half of Hispanic voters in Maryland. I’ve received endorsements from leaders in the Hispanic community: Governor Bill Richardson, Secretary Federico Pena, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Senator Ted Kennedy, a major leader on immigration in Congress, also endorsed me in February, as well as La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the country.
When Hispanic voters really look at my record of standing up for issues important to them, including the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the fight against health care disparities in minority communities and the need to focus on providing Hispanic youth with the educational opportunities they need to succeed, the more they vote for me. Almost twenty-five years ago, I was hired by a group of churches on the South Side of Chicago to help turn around neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of nearby steel plants. I knew that change wouldn’t be easy, but I also knew it would be impossible without bringing folks together and building a movement within the community. So I reached out and formed coalitions between Latino leaders and Black leaders on every issue from failing schools to illegal dumping to unimmunized children. And together, we made progress. We set up job training and after school programs, and we taught people on the South Side to stand up to their government when it wasn’t standing up for them.
But I didn’t stop there. I kept building coalitions and making progress throughout my eight years in the Illinois State Senate. I fought for working Americans, championed legislation to expand healthcare coverage to uninsured children and parents and provided tax relief to those who needed it most. I cosponsored and helped pass the Illinois state version of the DREAM Act, and worked hard to move the federal version of the bill through the Senate.
And in the United States Senate, I have continued to stand with the Hispanic community – even when it wasn’t easy or politically convenient. I have been unwavering in advocating comprehensive immigration reform. I am the only candidate running for President who attended the rallies for immigration reform. During the last immigration debate, I stood firm against politicians who wanted to demagogue the issue for political gain. I also introduced amendments and legislation to prioritize keeping immigrant families together, ensure citizenship application fees are not too onerous for working immigrant families, and ensure that employers have an easy, quick way to verify the citizenship status of their employees. And when I am president, I will revive our national discussion on comprehensive reform in my first year in the White House and work diligently toward a solution rooted in pragmatism, the rule of law, and our history as a nation of immigrants.
HT: Why do you consider wining the Latino Vote important for your campaign? Can you mention three things that you are consciously doing to achieve this goal?
Sen. Barack Obama: The Hispanic vote has been a crucial component of this primary and an important part of my campaign. We’ve seen the importance of Hispanic voter turn-out and the rising Hispanic voter registration rates in states like Nevada, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Hispanics are not just the fastest-growing segment of the population, but issues such as immigration, education, health care, and our relationship with Latin America are critical for the next President to address.
To reach out to Latinos, my campaign has made bilingual resources accessible to Spanish speakers on my website, including my bio, my position on these issues, and the work I have done with the Hispanic community. This information is available on my bilingual website as well as bilingual literature that volunteers have distributed to thousands of voters across the country, going door-to-door and through targeted phone banks to Hispanic voters. Our campaign has always worked from the bottom-up, and the response from volunteers has been overwhelming. We have brought both national and local surrogates to these states. Senator Ted Kennedy, Secretary Pena, and many other members of our National Hispanic Leadership Council have traveled for us, spoken on behalf of the campaign via television, radio, at town halls, and even canvassed. They know this election is too important for voters not to get involved, and I greatly appreciate everything they’ve done for this campaign. Finally, I have been speaking to Latino audiences personally, holding Latino town halls, and meeting with Latino leaders to learn from them and let them know that their issues and concerns are being heard. When I gave my speech on race in Philadelphia in March, I think it spoke not only to black and white audiences, but to many different groups in this country. I asked all Americans to rise above our racially divided past, and to seize the opportunity to carry forward the work of those who came before us, who struggled and died to bring us together. I think we have a great responsibility in this election to stop exploiting our racial differences and work together to have an honest discussion of the issues that ends the divisions of the past and looks toward the future. Only by bridging our differences can we all succeed together as Americans.
HT: What can Hispanics expect to see changing for the better, for them and their community, once President Barack Obama is sworn in?
Sen. Barack Obama: When I'm president, I will put comprehensive immigration reform back on the nation's agenda during my first year in office, and I will not rest until it is passed once and for all. We must create an immigration system that strengthens our security while reaffirming our heritage as a nation of immigrants -- a nation dedicated to giving weary travelers from around the world the chance to achieve their dreams. That’s the America that answered my father’s letters and his prayers and brought him here from Kenya so long ago.
But the struggle does not end there. An Obama administration will also reflect the great diversity of our nation, and I’m proud that my campaign team is similarly diverse. We need to close the achievement gap between Latino and other students, reduce the high school dropout rate, and finally enact the DREAM Act so that every child can have the chance to attend college. And I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term. It’s a plan that will cover every American, including the 15 million uninsured Latinos, and cut the cost of a typical family’s premiums by up to $2,500 a year.
But it is going to be hard to do any of this until we finally bring an end to the war in Iraq, a war I’m proud I opposed in 2002 at a time when it was not popular to do so. We shouldn’t compound the original mistake of going in by waiting any longer to pull our troops out. That’s why I’ve been fighting in the U.S. Senate to end this war and have called for us to begin withdrawing our combat troops not in six months, not in a year – now.
When this war is over, we can begin refocusing our attention on the challenges we face in other parts of the world, including Latin America. I will move beyond rhetoric to renew relations in the hemisphere. We are neighbors and what happens in Latin America matters to the United States. We need to be close partners for opportunity and security in the years to come.
HT: Many of Hispanic Trending readers either are or employ Latino professionals with work visas…What do you think about these men and women, contributing to this country, who entered legally, are paying their taxes, many have US-born kids, and most want to fully incorporate into the American Society? Are you for streamlining their path to residency and citizenship?
Sen. Barack Obama: There are few better examples of how broken our politics has become than the immigration debate. Just last summer, we saw comprehensive reform fail in part because of bitter partisanship.
We must require the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are already here to step onto a path that includes the ability to earn citizenship by demonstrating a sound character, a commitment to America, and a strong work ethic. We have to understand that many immigrants want to get right with the law. They work in their communities, pay taxes, and have become an integral part of our society. Many of them have started their own small businesses and assimilated into society, making our nation richer for it. We need to give this population a chance to pay a fine, learn English, and get to the back of the line for citizenship behind those who came here legally. At the same time, we need to fix our broken immigration bureaucracy so that those who enter the country legally have an orderly and fair process. I worked with Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) to introduce legislation to ensure that fees for immigration applications are not too onerous. During the recent immigration debate, I pushed Congress to find common ground and introduced amendments that would have prioritized keeping families together and would have held employers who hire undocumented immigrants responsible.
HT: Do you want to share anything specific with Hispanic Trending readers?
Sen. Barack Obama: I want to thank the readers of Hispanic Trending for their interest in this election and in my candidacy. Latinos have a significant role in this election, and I appreciate the support I’ve already received from this community and hope to work together to make sure we make significant progress on these important issues in the weeks, months, and years ahead.