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Obama: A Champion for All?

As President Barack Obama begins his term of office, AARP Segunda Juventud examines how the changes heralded by the new White House leadership will impact older Hispanics. Part V: The Hispanic Agenda

For Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), nothing is more important than pressing the new Obama administration to help Hispanics secure health care coverage.

Rosales, 64, says her heart sinks when she hears from uninsured Hispanics who need a doctor’s care and older Latinos struggling to pay for medicine. She knows first-hand the shortfalls in current health care coverage: her husband, who is covered under Medicare, pays $150 each month for medicines that aren’t covered by the program’s drug plan.

While LULAC takes the stance that the federal government should make sure all Americans have access to affordable health care, Rosales is willing to settle for Obama’s plan to expand health care coverage through a series of measures that stops short of ensuring coverage for all.

"We want universal health care, but we would accept the Obama health care plan as a beginning of things," she says.

Health care is just one item at the top of a longer list of priorities. Rosales and other Latino leaders are lobbying the President to take action on a Hispanic agenda that includes better access to education, increased civil rights enforcement, and help to Latinos who are unemployed or struggling to pay mortgages and keep their homes.

Strength in Numbers
Although Hispanic organizations lobby every new administration, there seems to be a lot more optimism today based on Obama’s campaign promises, and the expectation that the new President will focus on the community’s needs, because Latino votes helped elect him. And that optimism has sparked action.

The Hispanic community is "now fully awake, engaged, and influential," says Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ. "And that’s going to pay dividends in the way Obama and Congress govern. The first reflection of this is the good representation of Latinos in the Obama Cabinet and White House. Now the question will be if it shows up in policy. I think we are starting from a place of much greater understanding of how certain issues— like jobs, education, health care, and immigration—not only disproportionately affect the Latino community, but how they also fit squarely within an overall American agenda."

Leading Hispanic advocates didn’t wait for President-elect Obama to take the oath of office to begin to lobby him on a Hispanic agenda, meeting in December with John Podesta, head of the President’s transition team, and other transition officials.

But their effort really began the previous summer, when leaders of Hispanic organizations pressed Sen. Obama and rival Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona to consider the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a series of initiatives agreed on by 26 national Hispanic groups that include LULAC, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The agenda calls for more federal funds for educational programs serving Hispanic students, new steps to more accurately count Hispanics in the 2010 census, better efforts to combat hate crimes against Hispanics, and comprehensive immigration reform that would allow the nation’s 12 million undocumented workers to pursue a path toward citizenship.

The agenda also contains initiatives that would extend sick-leave benefits for all workers, bolster the ability of small businesses to provide health coverage for workers, establish incentives for Spanish-speaking Medicare providers, help homeowners facing foreclosure, and revisit the bankruptcy reforms that make it difficult for Hispanic households to protect their homes and assets.

In addition, the Hispanic groups seek to restore full food stamp benefits to legal immigrants and fight any attempts to establish a national voter identification program that could prevent older Hispanics, who are less likely to hold driver’s licenses or other required types of identification, from casting votes. Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, and South Dakota require voters to provide a government-issued photo identification before they can vote, and anti-immigrant groups want to extend the measures nationwide.

Off and Running
MALDEF attorney Peter Zamora is heartened by the first steps taken by Obama and the new Congress. Congress approved and Obama signed a bill to broaden the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which covers children in families who can’t afford health care but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor. Under the new law, states can extend SCHIP and MEDICAID coverage to newly arrived legal immigrant children and pregnant women.

Another good first step, Zamora says, is passage of another of Obama’s priorities, the so-called Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The law reverses a Supreme Court decision that makes it more difficult for workers to file claims based upon unlawful wage discrimination. While Ledbetter’s claim of discrimination was based on gender, Zamora says the legislation would help Hispanic workers who are victims of unlawful wage discrimination.

LULAC’s Rosales says Obama’s nomination of several Hispanics to his Cabinet is an indication that he wants to reach out to Hispanics. Rosales is especially pleased with Obama’s choice of California Rep. Hilda Solis, whom Rosales says is "very much a community person," to head the Labor Department.

But hope is tempered by political pragmatism—all White House initiatives will be constrained by the growing budget deficit. Some will be altered, or even rejected, by Congress. Still, says Rosales, "I think the Obama administration will listen to us."

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