Mitt Romney acknowledged he's at odds with many Hispanics
on immigration and other issues, but he argued yesterday that Latinos have seen
their economic situation worsen and their votes taken for granted under
"Is the America of 11 percent Hispanic unemployment the America of our dreams? We can do better," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee told an audience of about 1,000 at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at Walt Disney World.
Obama speaks to the same conference on Friday. Obama carried the Hispanic vote by roughly a 2-to-1 margin in 2008, and many Latinos have applauded the president's directive last week to lift the threat of deportation for an estimated 800,000 younger illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.
Romney criticized the president for announcing a "stop-gap measure" in an election year after not delivering comprehensive immigration reform in his first three and a half years in office, which included two years when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
But Romney offered only a few specifics on his own immigration plans. Those include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military, encouraging highly educated immigrants to remain in the country and streamlining immigration procedures to keep families together.
"Some people have asked if I will let stand the President's executive order. 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 said.
"As President I won't settle for stop-gap measures. I will work with Republicans and Democrats to build a long-term solution. I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it more transparent and easier. And I'm going to address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it."
The Democrat-leaning audience received Romney politely. The crowd was noticeably more enthusiastic about an hour later when another Republican, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, spoke on education.
Bush, who gave portions of his remarks in Spanish, mentioned that he appeared with Obama at an event at a Miami high school last year.
"I don't know about you, but when we find common ground, we shouldn't fight any more. We should move on and build on that success," Bush said to loud applause. "Apparently one can get in trouble when they say these kinds of things but I happen to believe it's the American way."
Hispanics are a key segment of the electorate in Florida and other competitive states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released today shows Obama leading Romney by a 46-42 percent margin in the Sunshine State, with Hispanic voters favoring Obama by a 49-39 percent margin. The survey of Hispanic voters carried a margin of error of plus- or minus-9 percent, however, because of the relatively small number of Hispanics sampled.
Hispanic voters nationally favor Obama by a 66-23 percent margin, according to a poll this month by Latino Decisions. The firm's co-founder, Matt Barreto, called Romney's speech a first step toward repairing his image with Hispanics after taking a hard line against illegal immigration during the Republican primaries.
Noting that an estimated 40 percent of Hispanics voted for former President George W. Bush's reelection in 2004, Barreto said Romney has a chance to win over some Latino voters.
"Because of the perceived harsh rhetoric on immigration, those people having been moving away from the Republican camp. I think what this speech does is allow (Romney) to start very slowly repairing that image and perhaps getting some folks back on board," Barreto said.
But Barreto said Romney missed an opportunity by not responding more specifically to Obama's directive.
Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democratic state lawmaker who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in Texas, blasted Romney for saying he'd work with Congress on immigration when Republicans have resisted any reform that includes a path to citizenship for those now in the country illegally.
"What makes us believe that Gov. Romney all of a sudden will change the frame in a Congress that's controlled by leaders who would rather electrify a fence and put immigrants in harm's way?" said Fischer, who said Obama was justified in bypassing Congress with his immigration directive.
While Romney devoted much of his remarks to immigration, he made it clear that he wants the economy to be the top issue for Hispanics and other voters.
Unemployment has consistently been higher among Hispanics than the general population. Hispanic unemployment was 10 percent in January 2009, when Obama took office, and reached 13.1 percent in November 2010. It got as low as 10.3 percent in March this year, but climbed to 11 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The overall unemployment rate was 7.8 percent when Obama took office. It has been above 8 percent for 40 consecutive months, including a high of 10 percent in October 2009. The jobless rate stood at 8.2 percent last month.
"Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard," Romney said in his speech. He said Obama had inherited a bad economy, but faulted the president for not taking steps to spur a more robust recovery.
"I believe that he's taking your vote for granted," Romney said of Obama. "I come here today with a very simple message: You do have an alternative and your vote should be respected and your voice is more important now than ever before."
The growing importance of the Hispanic vote was emphasized by several speakers at the conference.
"As a whole we now approach the first election that marks a time in history in our census that we have hit 50 million Latinos in this country," said NALEO President Sylvia Harris, a commissioner from Harris County, Texas. "And with those numbers, campaigns, candidates and political parties know that the way to the White House, the way to the capitol house, the way to city hall is not doable and will not succeed without the Latino vote."
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