ORLANDO — A week after unveiling a new immigration policy, President Obama made a direct appeal to a large conference of Latinos here Friday, hoping to rally a constituency that could be crucial to his reelection campaign.
Obama addressed hundreds of members of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, just a day after his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, appeared at the same conference. Romney, who courted conservative primary voters with hardline opposition to illegal immigration, began an attempt to soften his image and move toward the center by pledging Thursday to loosen some restrictions on the flow of legal foreign workers.
Obama, without mentioning Romney by name, drew a sharp distinction with his challenger on immigration, reminding the crowd of Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act, the legislation intended to put many illegal immigrant students and veterans on a path to citizenship. The bill was defeated in Congress after Republicans opposed it.
“Your speaker from yesterday, he’s promised to veto the DREAM Act, and we should take him at his word,” Obama said. By contrast, the president said that he announced last week that his administration would stop deporting some illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children and have gone on to be productive and otherwise law-abiding residents.
“I refused to keep looking deserving young people in the eye and telling them, ‘Tough luck, the politics are too hard,’ ” Obama said.
Hispanics, who had helped power Obama’s 2008 victory, had grown increasingly frustrated with his administration over the slow progress of immigration reform. And employment has hit the community particularly hard, with 11 percent of Latinos out of work compared with the national rate of 8.2 percent.
In 2008, Obama had told the NALEO conference that immigration would be a top priority, but he had little to show for it after the defeat of the DREAM Act.
Polls suggest his new immigration policy is popular: A Bloomberg News survey found that among likely voters, 64 percent agree with it.
Obama addressed the NALEO crowd not long after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising GOP star who has been mentioned as a potential Romney running mate, criticized the president during his own speech at the conference.
Rubio, who had been crafting a scaled-back version of the DREAM Act, was blindsided by Obama’s immigration announcement last week; the president had not discussed his directive with the senator.
“I don’t care who gets the credit,” Rubio told the crowd in the ballroom. “I don’t. But it exposes the fact that this issue is all about politics for some people. Not just Democrats, Republicans too.”
But Rubio ripped Obama’s approach on immigration and suggested that the president has a purely political motivation in making his recent appeal to Hispanics.
“I know in a few moments you’ll hear from the president. I was tempted to come here and tell you, ‘Hey, he hasn’t been here in three years. What a coincidence; it’s an election year,’ ” Rubio said, drawing some boos. “I was tempted to tell you, ‘Why didn’t he make this issue a priority?’ ”
Obama spent much of his remarks focusing on his campaign message of building a stronger middle class, and he emphasized policies that he said have helped small businesses owned by Latinos and his health care reform law that requires coverage for the uninsured.
But it was his remarks on immigration that drew the most applause from the audience. He blamed Republicans for blocking the DREAM Act and tied Romney directly to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.
Obama also emphasized that his directive is not intended as a long-term solution to immigration reform.
“It’s not amnesty. Congress still needs to come up with a long-range solution,” he said. “To those who are saying Congress should be the one to fix this, absolutely. For those who say we should do this in a bipartisan fashion, absolutely. My door’s been open for 3½ years. They know where to find me.”
The president added: “I’ve said time and again, ‘Send me the DREAM Act.
I will sign it right away.’ ”
Arturo Vargas, the executive director of NALEO, pointed to the enthusiastic reaction of Friday’s crowd to Obama’s mention of his immigration move last week as “evidence of the fact that it was something long overdue.”
“It was something many people in this room were asking for — some kind of administrative action in the absence of legislative action,” Vargas said in an interview. “But I think everybody understands it’s only temporary. It’s not a solution. And in fact, that’s what I found most compelling of Governor Romney’s remarks yesterday — when he acknowledged that we have a broken immigration system. The fact that he said that to me, then, suggests that he understands that we need a fix.”
And if Obama’s immigration order was indeed a political move, that fact didn’t appear to bother many of the Hispanic leaders who heard the president speak in Orlando.
“Obviously, I think there is some politics to this, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s the right thing to do,” said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza. “And people see it as a really positive step and possibly a breakthrough moment, even if it’s on a temporary basis. It’s offering folks in the community out there a little bit of hope that this isn’t the end of a process, but maybe the beginning.”