Obama administration officials ventured to the Inland Empire on Saturday for a policy summit with Latinos, getting an earful from residents stung by the region's flattened economy and critical of Washington's failure to reform the nation's immigration system.
The daylong meeting at UC Riverside, one of a series that have been held across the country, included free-flowing policy bull sessions and presentations by White House representatives touting President Obama's proposed jobs bills and record on healthcare, education funding and immigration.
The crowd filled a cavernous auditorium and included Latino activists, business owners, teachers and other residents — most of whom said they came to be heard rather than listen to speeches.
The economic wounds from the recession remain raw in a region where fortunes plummeted with the crash of the housing market and construction industry. Once a haven for Latino immigrants looking for housing construction jobs, unemployment now hovers around 14% in San Bernardino County and 13% in Riverside County.
"This just can't be an exercise in politics. It can't be, a region gets checked off and we move on," said Paul Granillo, president of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, a coalition of the region's businesses, government and nonprofit groups. "The challenges that face us are severe."
Nationwide, the Latino unemployment rate is just over 13%, compared with the national average of about 9%. Nearly a quarter of the 51 million Latinos in the U.S. live in poverty, compared with 15% for the nation as a whole.
San Bernardino, a city where Latinos account for 6 of every 10 residents, has the second-highest poverty rate among the nation's major cities. A U.S. Census report released in September showed that 34.7% of city residents live below the poverty line.
"There is no doubt that people are hurting and people need help," said Dennis Garcia, 52, an unemployed laboratory worker from Riverside who attended the summit. "Is it Obama's fault? I think he's done a good job, considering the mess he was handed by [President George W.] Bush."
UC Riverside political science professor Armando Navarro, a vocal immigrant rights activist, didn't let the president off so easy. Navarro said Obama made a serious miscalculation pushing his healthcare legislation through Congress early in his term, depleting precious political capital that would have been better used for initiatives to create jobs and save homes from foreclosure.
"His first order of business should have been to get people back to work," Navarro said.
Jose A. Rico, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, said the purpose of the summit was to hear the Latino community's opinions and suggestions about policies coming out of Washington — even if they were critical of the president.
But Rico and others also defended Obama, saying that hundreds of thousands of additional Americans have healthcare coverage because of the Affordable Health Act — and the aim is to expand coverage to all Americans in 2014. Billions of additional grants and loans are available to college students.
Julie Rodriguez, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, also reminded attendees that Obama is delivering on his promise to end the war in Iraq and protect equality in the workplace.
But in 2008, Obama promised to push for comprehensive immigration reforms that would provide a path to legal status for the estimated 10 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, and so far there has been no legislation.
Instead, the administration has deported more immigrants than the Bush administration, nearly 1 million over the past three years.
Daniel Guzman, an immigrant rights activist, said Obama has been an "absolute failure" on immigration reform and is losing support among Latino voters. Obama's approval rating among Latinos was 51% in a recent Pew Research poll, compared with 58% a year ago.
"He can blame the Republicans, but that's passing the buck," Guzman said of Obama's record on immigration reform. "He's given in to the enemy."