CHICAGO — The high-ceilinged Teamsters Hall in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood was filled with families, local political leaders and would-be supporters of President Barack Obama. But even amid the high-profile talks in Washington, D.C., and around the country about the debt limit and the proper role and size of government, one issue was pre-eminent among the faithful here: immigration reform.
The mostly Hispanic group of attendees who poured into the Teamsters Local 705 headquarters on the corner of West Jackson Boulevard and Ashland Avenue just days before the July Fourth weekend came to hear Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) on the last stop of his multicity tour focusing on immigration. But they also came to send a message to Obama, whose re-election headquarters is located just a few train stops away from the hall.
"We came out in record numbers when we voted for Obama on a promise that he has broken," said Emma Lozano, executive director of the Chicago-based Centro Sin Fronteras, an immigration advocacy group. "And now he has to shore up, otherwise he won't get a second term. So we're going to lock up our votes until he does."
It's a tough message for the former Illinois state Senator, who pledged in 2008 to tackle immigration reform and in recent months has kicked up his talk on the issue that is paramount to Latino voters. But attendees of the Gutierrez event said Obama must take further action and use his executive authority to help the students and members of the military who would be eligible for citizenship under the DREAM Act. The bill, which would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who agree to go to college or join the military, was approved in the House during the lame-duck session last December, but it narrowly failed in the Senate a few days later. With more Republicans in Congress now, the legislation faces long odds.
"I want to thank everybody that's working in the Senate and working in the House on the DREAM Act. I wish them godspeed," Gutierrez said, speaking before the crowd of listeners. "But let me tell you something, I was there last [year]; 216 Democrats voted for the DREAM Act, and we passed it in the House of Representatives. There are only [192 Democrats] left."
Gutierrez, the 10-term Democrat who represents a Hispanic-majority district in Chicago, said the issue of immigration would not have a better fate under a Republican president and added that he wants Obama to be re-elected. But after visiting 27 cities over the span of three months to focus on immigration, Gutierrez said the mood is not as bright as it was in 2008.
"People want to be for him. They really want to be for him, but he's really going to have to give them a reason," Gutierrez said in an interview after giving a rousing speech to the crowd of nearly 500 attendees.
"People think it's a little late — that he didn't do anything when we were in the majority," he added. "Now they're a bit more cynical, after these two years, when he says, 'I want to bring Democrats and Republicans together.'"
Obama carried 67 percent of the Latino vote in the 2008 general election and captured broad support of that base in swing states including Florida, New Mexico and Nevada, according to the Pew Research Center. In his home state of Illinois, 72 percent of Latinos voted for Obama.
Many of those voters swung for Obama after heavily favoring then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primary. Clinton carried Latinos 2-to-1 over Obama, and, according to PRC, "no other major demographic voting group in the country swung so heavily to Obama as Latinos did between the primaries and the general election" in 2008.
"We've noticed that the energy and enthusiasm among immigrants in general, and Hispanics in particular, is not there the way it was in 2008," explained Chicago Alderman Danny Solis, one of many speakers at the event. "We want to help the president address these issues and pick up the energy and enthusiasm that's dropped off over the last two years."
Homemade posters that peppered the room reflected a sense of frustration that was also expressed through wild applause and loud chants during the two-hour town hall.
"Change, We're Still Waiting," one sign read.
"We hoped for better," read another.
"Please President Obama, don't take our daddy away. We love him and it would make us very sad," two young children said after their father spoke to the crowd, explaining that he was trying to earn citizenship status to stay in Chicago with his family.
But attendees also shouted "Sí se puede," Spanish for Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can" slogan, and they held out hope that he can find a way to soon address it.
Obama has continued to keep the issue alive. He hosted a Hispanic Policy Conference at the White House this week that focused on, among other things, immigration reform. He met in May with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members called on Obama to enact the DREAM Act administratively. And also in May, he delivered a host of speeches throughout the country on the issue.
Responding to a question during last week's Twitter town hall about whether he would enact a visa program to help startup companies keep specialized employees, Obama said he was working with stakeholders to figure out if there are "ways that we can streamline the visa system."
"We've always been a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," he said. "And so we need comprehensive immigration reform, part of which would allow entrepreneurs and high-skilled individuals to stay here because we want to be attracting that talent here."
On that point, Obama and Gutierrez seem to agree.
"The stories, if you go to church in an immigrant community, you go to work, it's all you hear. It's pervasive," Gutierrez said. "So once you understand the impact our broken immigration has not on a caste of people that's segregated from us, but [on] an integral part, you get a sense of it."