President Barack Obama, speaking in Florida at the same venue where Mitt Romney criticized the incumbent’s immigration policy, gets his turn today to make his case to the critical Hispanic voting bloc.
Obama, who will address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, announced last week a plan to exempt from deportation younger illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements. Hispanics and voters in general welcomed the move.
Romney yesterday argued that Obama takes the Hispanic vote for granted and has failed to lead on immigration. He offered few details on his own plan, other than pledging a “long-term solution” to replace Obama’s temporary measure.
“For two years, this president had huge majorities in the House and Senate; he was free to pursue any policy he pleased,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said in Lake Buena Vista, Florida yesterday. “But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system.” He only acted when “facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote.”
In his June 15 announcement, Obama said he won’t try to deport some illegal immigrants under the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 and who have been in the country for at least five straight years. They must have no criminal history and attend school or have earned a high school degree or its equivalent, or have served in the military.
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive order,” Romney said to about 1,000 people in a ballroom at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. “The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure.”
Romney received tepid applause, getting some boos when he mentioned repealing the health-care law Obama championed. Juan Zapata, a Republican and the Latino group’s chairman, called the largely Democratic audience “polite.”
Obama had momentum heading into today’s speech after his announcement last week, said Florida Representative Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat supporting the president.
“There’s definitely going to be a more welcome reception,” Soto said. “He has a lot of wind at his sails.”
As he has before, Romney endorsed awarding permanent residency to foreign students who get advanced degrees in math, science or engineering at U.S. universities, saying they should have green cards stapled to their diplomas. He also supports a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants who serve in the military.
In wooing Hispanic voters angered by the stern positions he took during the Republican primary campaign, Romney also must be careful not to antagonize Republicans who view Obama’s approach as akin to amnesty.
In response to Romney’s speech, Obama’s campaign spotlighted the so-called Dream Act legislation, which would let many illegal immigrants stay in the U.S. and provide a path to citizenship.
Romney’s pledge yesterday to keep his promises to Hispanics contrasts with his primary campaign, Gabriela Domenzain, the president’s campaign director of Hispanic press, said in an e-mailed statement. He previously “called the Dream Act a ‘handout’ and promised to veto it,” she said.
Romney told the audience Obama presumes Hispanics are with him.
“He may admit that he hasn’t kept every promise,” Romney said, previewing the president’s speech. “He’ll imply that you don’t really have an alternative. I think he’s taking your vote for granted.”
Hispanic households have been among the hardest hit by the struggling economy, he said, repeating a constant theme.
“Is the America of 11 percent Hispanic unemployment the America of our dreams?” he asked. “We can do better. We can prosper again, with the powerful recovery we’ve all been waiting for.”
Romney’s remarks lacked specifics, said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist based in Florida.
“I wish I heard more,” she said. “Hispanics who want a solution for the 11 million undocumented here are faced with two options: a guy who makes big promises and doesn’t deliver or a guy who makes no promises.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is due to weigh in next week on immigration, ruling on Arizona’s law requiring police officers to check a person’s legal status during routine traffic stops. The law also makes it a crime for illegal immigrants to work in the state.
With the U.S. unemployment rate at 8.2 percent, the politics of immigration are sensitive. Neither party wants to be viewed as favoring illegal immigrants over American workers.
While Obama campaign officials deny that politics motivated the president’s recent directive, they are counting on it to solidify support among Hispanic voters in a close race with Romney.
Hispanics helped propel Obama to the White House in 2008. He won 67 percent of their vote compared with 31 percent for Republican John McCain, according to exit polls. This year, Hispanics could be crucial in such swing states as Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.
A Bloomberg poll this week showed Obama benefiting from his new immigration policy. Among likely voters, 64 percent surveyed said they agreed with the policy and 30 percent disagreed. Independents backed the decision by better than 2-1.
In battling to lock up the Republican nomination, Romney used tougher rhetoric on illegal immigration, opposing any proposal that gives legal status to undocumented immigrants without first requiring that they leave the U.S. He made no distinction at the time for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children.
Once the nomination was secured, Romney has tried to moderate his position, stressing the pain Hispanics have suffered in the economic downturn.
Romney, 65, this week disclosed he is considering an Hispanic, Marco Rubio, as a potential vice presidential running mate. Rubio, 41, is being vetted for the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket, Romney said, challenging a news report suggesting the Florida senator had been excluded from the search.
As a running mate, Rubio, a Cuban-American elected to the Senate in 2010, could boost Romney’s standing among Hispanics and has the backing of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the brother of one former president and son of another.
Rubio yesterday said Obama’s shift on deportation was intended as a political “talking point,” underscored by his failure to consult Republicans beforehand to build bipartisan support.
“This White House didn’t reach out to anybody,” Rubio told reporters at a breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “That never happened.”