In an address to a friendly audience of Latino leaders Friday, President Obama pledged to renew the battle for comprehensive immigration reform, blaming Congress for the lack of progress on the issue since he took office.
It was an election-year pitch aimed at one of the president’s core constituencies – Latino voters, who supported Mr. Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in 2008.
While the economy is the dominant issue of the election, immigration touches many Latino voters personally, through their own experience and through that of family and friends. The heated rhetoric by some Republicans on illegal immigration offers Obama an opportunity to score big again.
Obama spoke of how close the country came to bipartisan reform six years ago under President Bush, only to fail. This stalemate, he says, has given rise to a “patchwork of state laws that cause more problems than they solve and are often doing more harm than good.”
“As long as I am president of the United States, I will not give up the fight to change it,” he told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), meeting near Orlando.
Florida is the largest electoral battleground state in the country, and turnout among the state’s large Latino population could spell the difference between victory and defeat for Obama in November.
A Supreme Court decision is due next week on Arizona’s tough new immigration law, and if any of it is upheld, in defiance of the Obama administration’s wishes, that will strike a blow to the president’s hopes of keeping tight federal control on immigration rules.
On Thursday Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, addressed NALEO and laid out his own plan for immigration, mainly focused on ways to make the system of legal immigration work better. Mr. Romney struck a softer tone on illegal immigration than he had during the primaries, when he suggested that “self-deportation” could be a way to reduce the ranks of undocumented workers.
During a GOP debate, Romney had also pledged to veto the DREAM Act, legislation aimed at offering young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, if he became president. But he eased slightly on that position, agreeing with Newt Gingrich that military service could be a path to legal status (though not citizenship) for young undocumented immigrants.
For Obama, there was no denying that his new policy announced a week ago to help young illegal immigrants avoid deportation was a big hit with the NALEO leaders.
Obama’s immigration announcement – a stopgap that doesn’t lead to citizenship – has put Romney in a political box: If he pledged to undo the move, it would please his base but alienate Latino voters. In his remarks Thursday, Romney acknowledged Obama’s move, but was vague about whether he would keep the policy.
On Friday, Obama doubled down on his DREAM-like gambit.
“We should have passed the DREAM Act a long time ago,” the president said. “It was written by members of both parties. When it came up for a vote a year and a half ago, Republicans in Congress blocked it.”
“So,” he continued, “lifting the shadow of deportation and giving them a reason to hope, that was the right thing to do.”
Obama has not had a stress-free relationship with the Latino community. Deportations have reached an all-time high during his presidency. And he has not spoken before the annual NALEO conference since 2008, when candidate Obama promised “millions of new jobs” and a push to make immigration reform “a priority I will pursue from my very first day.” Latino unemployment is at 11 percent, higher than the national average.
Obama also promised an end to the foreclosure crisis, which has hit Latino homeowners especially hard, as well as an increase in minority enrollment in health insurance. If health-care reform survives Supreme Court scrutiny, it will boost the ranks of the insured across all ethnic groups, but home foreclosures remain a big problem.
Still, despite the frustrations, Obama continues to poll well among Latino voters. A May survey by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo shows 61 percent supporting Obama, and 27 percent backing Romney. Four years ago, Obama won 67 percent of the vote against Republican nominee John McCain.
But while winning in polls is nice, Team Obama is more concerned about getting Latino voters to turn out. The campaign and the Democratic Party have been organizing for more than a year, identifying voters, making sure they’re registered, and running Spanish-language ads.