President Barack Obama was grilled Thursday on the Spanish-language television network Univision about failing to fulfill a 2008 campaign vow to pass immigration reform.
In a town hall-style forum with television journalists Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, Obama was put on the defensive when asked about his campaign promise.
Ramos said Obama promised to take action on an immigration bill in his first year in office, and pointed out that the president's left-leaning Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress at the time but no immigration reform was introduced.
"I want for you to acknowledge you did not keep your promise," Ramos said.
Obama responded by saying he made the promise "before the economy was on the verge of collapse." He said he became consumed by the collapsing economy and the auto industry bailout in his first two years in office, leaving little time to address immigration.
"My biggest failure is that we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done, ... but it's not for lacking of trying or desire," Obama said. "I haven't gotten everything done that I want to get done. That's why I'm running for a second term."
The president noted that in his first year in office he invited every member of Congress who had previously been supportive of comprehensive immigration reform to a meeting and told them, "We need to get this done."
He concluded by blaming the conservative opposition Republicans, saying he didn't expect that members of the GOP who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform "suddenly would walk away." He said he was "happy to take responsibility for being naive here."
The president enjoys a wide lead in support among Latino voters over Republican Mitt Romney, who appeared at a similar Univision forum on Wednesday. But Latinos are not as enthusiastic about Obama as they were four years ago, when they voted for him over Republican John McCain by a two-to-one margin.
Latino voters will play a crucial role in the election, particularly Florida. Though Obama failed to get comprehensive immigration reform passed, he bypassed Congress in June when he issued a directive to stop deporting some illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children and meet certain qualifications.
Immigration legislation has been a sticking point for Latino voters along with the estimated 1.4 million deportations of undocumented immigrants under his administration. Obama said he has directed the Homeland Security Department to focus on deporting criminal immigrants, not otherwise-law abiding ones who have families in the US.
The directive made over 1 million young undocumented immigrants eligible for a two-year reprieve from potential deportation, he said.
Pressed by Ramos about whether he announced the programme for political gain, Obama said it was not related to his reelection campaign. "I was winning the Latino vote before we took that action," he said.
The session was streamed live and was to be broadcast later Thursday in Spanish and English.
Obama made note of Romney's attempt to repair the damage from a secret video in which he charged that the 47 per cent of Americans who support Obama are freeloaders "who believe the government has responsibility to care for them." Romney said Wednesday in his Univision forum appearance that his campaign represented "100 per cent" of Americans.
Obama's response to that was "people want a hand up, not a hand out," adding that there were people who abuse the system "both at the bottom and the top, because there are a whole bunch of millionaires not paying taxes either."
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