In May 2008, Jorge Ramos, a popular anchor at the Spanish-language network Univision, sat down for an interview with Barack Obama. Obama was by then on a glide path to the Democratic nomination, but Ramos says he suspected the candidate wanted to peel away more Hispanic voters for the November election. So Ramos got Obama to repeat a pledge he’d been making on the trail. “What I can guarantee,” Obama said, “is that we will have in the first year [of the presidency] an immigration bill that I strongly support.” Ramos giddily called it “ La Promesa de Obama”—Obama’s Promise.
“When he had a hold on Congress, when he had 60 votes in the Senate, he could have done it,” Ramos says. “And he didn’t. He chose other issues. And that’s why Latinos are so frustrated.”
The one-year deadline expired in January, and Ramos went on the warpath. Armed with a new book, A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto, Ramos is the most prominent Hispanic voice inside or outside of politics to blast away at Obama for not keeping his word. “I believed him and millions of Latinos believed him,” Ramos said by phone from Miami.
“The fact is,” Ramos continues, his voice angry but restrained, “at this point, we can say Barack Obama broke a promise. It’s that simple. … We might have to wait years because that promise wasn’t kept.”
• Tina Brown: Time for Arnold to Save the World• Peter Beinart: Obama’s Winning StreakThe silver-haired man delivering those words is the kind of critic the White House would be wise to pay attention to. For those who watch Spanish-language TV, Ramos is like an amalgam of Brian Williams and Keith Olbermann, though with more gravitas than either; Stephen Colbert once called Ramos “the most trusted name in news that I can’t understand.” Noticiero Univision, Ramos’ nightly newscast, draws an average of more than two million viewers. Ramos is a conduit between his Latino audience and politicians eager to schmooze with it. In 2007, when presidential candidates of both parties participated in the first debates broadcast exclusively in Spanish, it was Ramos and his Noticiero co-anchor, María Elena Salinas, who grilled them.
But Ramos, who is 52, is not merely a handsome face searching for airtime. “He’s not a pretty-boy, clothes-horse kind of anchor,” says Henry Cisneros, who was president of Univision from 1997 to 2000. Ramos is also a pungent editorialist, and stumping for immigration reform—what he calls the “new frontier in civil rights”—is his obsession. Night after night, speaking in Spanish, Ramos is a parallel universe Lou Dobbs.
He’s also the Obama administration’s immigration noodge. At a White House meeting last September, Ramos pressed the president about immigration reform. Obama, who was knee-deep in the health-care morass at the time, stammered out a reply: “I am not backing off one minute from getting this done, but let's face it, I've had a few things to do.”
Last month, at a state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Ramos again cornered his quarry. “I asked him again about reform,” Ramos says gleefully. Obama looked stunned, he recalls. “He said—I’m not quoting him exactly—‘How many times do I have to say I’m for immigration reform?’ My answer was, ‘As many times as needed.’”
Campaign promises are made to broken; just ask those waiting for Obama to close Guantánamo. But Ramos is unlikely to back down. For one thing, Ramos sees himself as an insider player in the immigration-reform movement: He was born in Mexico City and moved to the United States when he was 25. (He became a naturalized citizen in 2008.) Moreover, Henry Cisneros explains, Univision draws its highest news ratings when its anchors talk about immigration. “It’s the issue that moves the needle more than any other,” Cisneros says.
With a potent mix of the personal and the commercial, Ramos made it his mission in 2008 to pin down the candidates on immigration. At the Univision debate, Ramos got John Edwards and Bill Richardson to join Obama in promising to tackle immigration within one year. Hillary Clinton said she’d do it in her first 100 days. After the 2008 GOP convention, John McCain, in one of his periodic mood swings on his old pet issue, surprised Ramos by saying he would pursue immigration reform on his “first day” as president.
So what happened to the issue the candidates were crawling over each other to tell Ramos they supported? Well, as Obama says, his docket wasn’t exactly empty: He had two wars, a cratering economy, and health-care reform. As soon as the Arizona law brought immigration back on to the front pages, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico banished it again. “Immigration is an important issue, but it doesn’t fall in my judgment in the top three issues facing the nation,” Federico Peña, a former Clinton Cabinet official who was Obama’s national campaign co-chairman, says. “Is it in the top five? Sure. I think the president is dealing with the issues sequentially.”
Even if Obama had an immigration bill ready to push, Peña notes that it doesn’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, if it ever had one. “There are 11 Republican senators who voted for Kennedy-McCain just a few years ago,” Peña says. “Where are they now?”
In pure political terms, this is a logical answer. Indeed, Ramos, who’s well-versed in Senate procedure, says White House aides have been privately telling him the same thing. But he’s unmoved.
The immigration debate is so explosive that it is often conducted as a kind of guessing game— who might vote for this bill should it ever reach the floor? Ramos wants to bring the debate out of the shadows. “Let’s have a bill, an immigration bill, or a proposal, and let’s find out how many senators and members of Congress are willing to support that bill,” Ramos says. “Then we’ll go from there. If Republicans don’t want to support it, let’s find out… Let’s see how many Democrats really support immigration reform right now. Let’s see how far the White House is willing to go on this issue.”
Ramos worries that Obama, like George W. Bush, erred by waiting too long to bring up immigration. “When he had a hold on Congress, when he had 60 votes in the Senate, he could have done it. And he didn’t. He chose other issues. And that’s why Latinos are so frustrated.”
He adds, “Maybe Hillary Clinton was right—maybe Obama should have done it in the first 100 days.”
Immigration usually trails behind education and the economy in surveys of the most important issues for Latino voters. Ramos says it’s the “most important symbolic issue,” however, and was crucial to Obama’s success. Obama’s Promise proved, in a way that’s hard to quantify with numbers, that Obama was a friend of the Hispanic community. Obama wound up with 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, 14 points higher than John Kerry’s total.
“What we needed back then in 2008—we needed to get something out of that vote,” Ramos says. “Other groups got different things. What we Latinos got from our vote was that promise from Barack Obama.”
No one who watches Univision is bound to forget. On a recent episode of Al Punto, Ramos’ Sunday-morning public-affairs show, he interviewed a Mexican woman who had been deported from the United States, and then linked her via satellite with her daughter, whom she’d left behind in Dallas. In May, Ramos held a prime-time town-hall meeting on the new Arizona law, which he compares to South African apartheid, with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez. The onslaught from Spanish-language media is having an effect. According to Gallup, Obama’s popularity among Latinos fell 12 points since January, while it stayed static with African Americans and whites. The periods in which it fell most precipitously were when immigration reform was in the news. Voters apparently remembered La Promesa.
Ramos says November could be a “disaster” for the Democrats with an unmotivated Latino base. But, of course, electing more Republicans to Congress would make immigration reform even more of a long shot. “What’s ironic is the best hope Latinos have right now is also Barack Obama,” Ramos says.
Thus, Ramos and reform advocates are stuck into a kind of conundrum in which the only recourse is to needle and cajole the guy who gave them hope in the first place. “Believe me, next time I see Obama, I’ll ask him about immigration reform again,” Ramos says. “I’ll ask him about the promise. And he knows that I’ll ask him.”
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.