President Obama blamed Republicans for blocking
immigration reform today and got a standing ovation from a national group of
Hispanic elected officials for his recent order temporarily lifting the threat
of deportation for as many as 1.4 million young people whose parents brought
them to the U.S. illegally.
Obama spoke to about 1,000 members of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at Walt Disney World a day after presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney got a noticeably more muted reception from the same Democrat-leaning group.
Obama also campaigned in Tampa later in the day, appearing before about 3,000 students and others at Hillsborough Community College. On the short flight between Orlando and Tampa, he phoned Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to congratulate him for Thursday night's NBA championship.
The NALEO convention and the presidential candidates' appearances underscored the importance of the Hispanic vote in several hotly contested states, including Florida. The speeches also showed the potency of the immigration issue in the general election.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who spoke about two hours before Obama, said he wanted to talk about jobs and the economy but changed his plans because "both my head and my heart tell me that today perhaps we are as close as we've ever been to a critical turning point in the debate about immigration."
Obama, who won the Hispanic vote by roughly a 2-to-1 margin in 2008, energized many Latinos last week when he bypassed Congress and issued a directive halting deportations of people who are under 30 and were brought to the U.S. as children by parents who were not citizens.
"In the face of a Congress that refuses to do anything on immigration, I've said that I'll take action wherever I can," said Obama.
He criticized Republicans for opposing the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for younger undocumented immigrants who complete high school and go to college or serve in the military.
"They are Americans," Obama said of the estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million people affected by his order. "In their hearts, in their minds they are Americans through and through. In every single way but on paper, and all they want is to go to college and give back to the country they love. So lifting the shadow of deportation and giving them a reason to hope, that was the right thing to do."
Obama got a standing ovation for his immigration directive and also when he mentioned the federal health care law, which he said would allow 9 million Hispanics to get insurance.
Romney criticized Obama's immigration order Thursday, calling it a "stop-gap measure" rather than a permanent solution. But Romney did not specify what he'd do as president with the people covered by Obama's order.
Obama conceded his order "falls short of where we need to be -- a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix."
Obama noted that Romney, whom he never mentioned by name, took a stance against the DREAM Act during the Republican primaries.
"Your speaker from yesterday has a different view. In his speech he said when he makes a promise he'll keep it. Well, he has promised to veto the DREAM Act and we should take him at his word," Obama said.
While Obama was enthusiastically received by most of the crowd, Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles accused the president failing to pass comprehensive reform dealing with the estimated 12 million people in the U.S. illegally.
"The sheer reality, and Latinos are aware of this, is that he promised immigration reform the first year of his administration. He had a House and a Democratic Senate and he didn't do anything to push immigration reform," said Aguilar.
But Aguilar acknowledged that Romney and Republicans will have an uphill struggle wooing Hispanic voters.
"Historically Latinos have identified with the Democratic party," Aguilar said, "and I admit there are many Republicans who have said terrible things about immigrants."
At Hillsborough Community College, Obama seized on a story in The Washington Post about investments by Romney's private equity firm in companies that were described as "pioneers" in outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries such as China and India.
"We don't need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office," Obama said, according to the Associated Press.
Obama said his tax proposal would stop giving tax breaks to businesses that send jobs overseas and offer incentives for companies that bring jobs back to the U.S.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the Washington Post story did not differentiate between "domestic outsourcing" and "offshoring" and didn't take into account work done overseas to support U.S. exports. Romney would "make it easier and more attractive for companies to create jobs here at home," Saul said.
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