President Obama addresses the audience at the 29th annual conference of… (Edward Linsmier / Getty…)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- One day after his Republican rival reached out to an influential Latino political organization, President Obama fired back by reminding the same audience that Mitt Romney had promised to veto a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants.
Obama, in a speech that brought the crowd out of its seats three times, reminded members of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that Romney had told them just the day before that he keeps his promises. The Republican made the remark in the context of a pledge to pursue bipartisan action to overhaul the immigration system, if he’s elected.
“Well, he has promised to veto the Dream Act, and we should take him at his word,” Obama declared, and a rumble of surprise swept the audience, which apparently hadn’t expected such a frontal attack. NALEO, bipartisan in membership, is heavily Democratic, and at times Obama’s appearance took on the air of a campaign rally.
After the applause that greeted his remark had subsided, Obama reacted to the audience with a shrug. “I’m just sayin’,” he added, to laughter and more clapping. “I believe that would be a tragic mistake. You do, too.”
Throughout his remarks, Obama sought to ally himself, on a personal level, with members of his audience. He said his Kenyan father, like millions of immigrants, had been “drawn by the promise of America.” The senior Obama was a graduate student who did not stay in the U.S. for long and didn’t seek citizenship.
"No matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what your last name, this is a place where you can make it if you try,” Obama said. “And whether our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower or were brought here on slave ships, whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande, their diversity has not only enriched this country, it helped build the greatest economic engine the world has ever known. Hungry people, striving people, dreamers, risk-takers -- people don't come here looking for handouts. We are a nation of strivers and climbers and entrepreneurs, the hardest-working people on Earth.”
“Nobody personifies these American values, these American traits, more than the Latino community," he said.
Despite a 2008 campaign pledge to take early action on immigration, the president and congressional Democrats have not tried to advance a comprehensive overhaul in the last 3½ years. Republicans blocked a less sweeping proposal, the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants.
Last week, Obama took executive action to provide a form of protection for many of the same undocumented Americans, by barring the deportation of many of those who are under 30. The NALEO audience cheered his mention of the decision and rose to its feet as he attacked Republicans for blocking the Dream Act. Obama’s administrative action is reversible by the next president (Romney has not said whether he would do so or not). It also fails to offer a route to citizenship, putting those who take advantage of it at potential risk of deportation if the policy is overturned by another president.
Obama did not offer any sweeping immigration overhaul plans of his own, making it clear that he expects Congress to shoulder that responsibility. He said he is “still waiting to work with anyone from either party who is committed to real reform.”
He blamed “a small faction” in the Republican Party for blocking action on immigration, and pivoted from the point to attack laws in states such as Arizona and Alabama that have targeted immigrants with tough enforcement and prompted a legal challenge that the Supreme Court is expected to rule on next week.
Those Republican conservatives have “created the same kind of stalemate on immigration reform that we're seeing on a whole range of other economic issues, and it's given rise to a patchwork of state laws that cause more problems than they solve and are often doing more harm than good,” he said to applause. “This makes no sense. It's not good for America. And as long as I am president of the United States, I will not give up the fight to change it.”
From Orlando, the president flew to the other end of the I-4 corridor, a swing section of the nation’s largest swing state, for a rally at a Tampa community college. There, he planned to attack Romney over a report that highlighted the Republican's work as a private-equity executive in helping companies outsource U.S. jobs to other countries.
"Today it was reported in the Washington Post that the companies his firm owned were ‘pioneers’ in the outsourcing of American jobs to places like China and India. Pioneers!" Obama was to say, according to an advance text provided by the White House. "We don’t need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office. We need a president who will fight for American jobs and American manufacturing. And that’s what my plan will do.”