WEST LIBERTY, Iowa (Reuters) - Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was fighting for the Democratic presidential nomination, local Hispanics like Jose Zacarias were eager foot soldiers for him in this critical battleground state.
Encouraged by Obama’s promise to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, Zacarias hosted parties to raise money for the candidate and helped register new voters in the Hispanic community.
When election day arrived, Zacarias and other Hispanics helped get out the Democratic vote.
Those efforts paid off, aiding Obama in winning Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses in January 2008 -- a victory that transformed his campaign -- and to go on to capture the state’s seven electoral votes in the November 2008 general election that swept him into the White House.
But three years later, as Obama seeks re-election, conversations with Hispanics voters here reveal a deep disappointment with the president, especially on immigration.
As a result, the enthusiasm his candidacy generated in 2008 is now hard to find in this city, which became Iowa’s first majority Hispanic town in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
“The passion that was there is not there now,” Zacarias, 56, said.
Hispanics here acknowledge the many challenges Obama faced in his first term, from the recession to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the takeover, in last fall’s midterm elections, of the House of Representatives by Republicans opposed to nearly everything he campaigned for.
But the disenchantment is still there. “He’s really let us down on immigration,” said Francisco Martinez, a 40-year-old worker in the local turkey processing plant who will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2012.
“He’s had to fix everything that (ex-president George W.) Bush broke. But immigration’s one of the things that’s broken and needs to be fixed. ”
Obama’s Hispanic problem extends beyond West Liberty, says Rene Rocha, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa, and could suppress voter turnout in the community in 2012.
“It’s safe to say that there’s been a significant amount of disappointment with the Obama administration among Latino elites,” Rocha said.
“And one of the big questions is the extent to which this disappointment will filter down to the popular level and ordinary Latino voters.”
One of the ironies of Obama’s first term -- a bitter irony for Hispanics here -- is that deportations of illegal immigrants have risen during his first term as the administration has adopted tougher border and workplace enforcement.
That increase, which comes even as Mexican migration to the United States has fallen, “has not gone unnoticed in the community,” Rocha said.
But the biggest gripe Hispanics here have with Obama is that he has done nothing to address the problems faced by the estimated 12 million undocumented workers who are already in this country, working, paying taxes and raising taxes, but without any clear path to normalizing their status.
They saw the political capital Obama was willing to spend on behalf of the millions without health insurance and wonder why those immigrants didn’t get the same attention.
“Our people are suffering,” said Oscar Garcia, a 57-year-old former corrections officer in nearby Muscatine who now works with autistic children in West Liberty. “They need to become legal.”
Obama, Garcia said, “has done nothing for immigrants. He hasn’t kept his promises. When healthcare came along, he pushed it to the limit. He didn’t care what the Republicans were saying. Why couldn’t he do the same thing for immigration reform? Why didn’t he push it the limit?”
If there’s good news here for Obama, it’s that Republicans are regarded with deep suspicion by most local Hispanics, not just on immigration issue but on workplace safety and business regulation.
But that only adds to the sense of frustration among Hispanics.
“There isn’t any other real choice,” said Ismael Sanchez, 69, who came of age in Arizona as Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Union was organizing during the 1960s and retired in West Liberty after working for many years in a Tysons packing plant in Columbus Junction.
“The Republicans leave a bitter taste in my mouth. They don’t seem to be interested in our votes.”
Zacarias, who came to West Liberty in the early 1980s speaking no English to work in the turkey plant and now is a citizen and a middle manager at a plant in Iowa City, agrees.
“The Republicans would be happy to get rid of the unions and undo labor laws and the EPA -- you name it -- and take things back to the old-fashioned game of letting industries regulate themselves,” he said.
“If we let these guys running the packing plant police themselves we’ll be in big trouble.”
Reporting by James B. Kelleher' Editing by Jerry Norton