LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Accusing President Obama of taking Latino voters for granted, Mitt Romney told an influential Latino audience Thursday that he would “replace and supersede” Obama’s new deportation policy for young immigrants but offered no details.
One day ahead of Obama’s highly anticipated appearance before the same audience, the Republican presidential candidate said that he “won’t settle for a stopgap measure,” as he characterized the one Obama announced last week. It was Romney’s first outreach to Latinos in the general-election campaign, and he used it to unveil family-friendly proposals aimed at immigrants who are current legal U.S. residents.
But he suggested no remedy for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country illegally. During the GOP primaries, he said the solution was for illegal immigrants to stop working and leave the country, which he termed “self-deportation.”
“I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it more transparent and easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it,” he said at an opening-day luncheon of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ annual conference.
Romney accused Obama, who hasn’t spoken to the NALEO gathering since the 2008 campaign, of “taking your vote for granted.” He added: "You do have an alternative, and your vote is more important now that ever before.”
He received a polite reception from the bipartisan — though predominantly Democratic — organization. The only discordant note was a loud “boo” when Romney’s call for the repeal of Obama’s healthcare law drew a smattering of applause.
During his remarks, Romney touched on several new planks in his immigration policy, including reallocating the current number of green cards to give priority to legal immigrants who want to unite their families “under one roof.” He also said he would exempt from green-card caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents.
The Romney campaign, in an email to reporters, also said Romney would raise limits on the number of immigrants from unspecified countries to improve the chances that “the best and brightest” could immigrate to the U.S. He drew applause after mentioning his policy of offering a path to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the military.
For years, partisan stalemate in Washington and divisions within the Republican Party have blocked action on a comprehensive immigration overhaul and are now complicating Romney’s efforts to attract more Latino support. Conservatives have criticized Romney for not pushing back more aggressively against Obama’s new policy to limit deportations of young immigrants, which they have labeled “back-door amnesty.” If elected, Romney would have to either suspend or continue Obama's policy, but he has refused to say which path he would choose.
In his NALEO speech, his most important appearance before a Latino audience in the current campaign, Romney attacked Obama for his policy shift, arguing that the president failed to act until he was “facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote.”
Obama, he said, “finally offered a temporary measure that he seems to think will be just enough to get him through the election. After 3½ years of putting every issue from loan guarantees to his donors to ‘cash for clunkers,’ putting all those things before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on Day 1, but didn’t. I think you deserve better.”
Romney finds himself on a knife-edge over the immigration issue. Earlier this year, he told GOP donors in Florida that a continued Democratic trend among Latino voters “spells doom” for Republicans if it isn’t reversed.
But opinion polling over the last week indicated that, if anything, the president’s policy shift has reinforced that trend. Several surveys found that his new deportation policy was very popular among Latino voters, many of whom had previously grown angry over the record number of deportations since Obama took office.
Immigration ranks low as a concern of most voters, but among Latinos “it is a mobilizing issue. It is personal,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist. “It can get us to the polls,” he told a panel discussion at the NALEO conference shortly before Romney spoke.