WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is basking in the aftermath of his breakthrough directive on illegal immigration and pressing his jobs agenda before a meeting of Hispanic leaders, one day after they gave a cool reception to GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney and his newly softened stance on immigration.
The president was to speak to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on Friday near Orlando, his first speech to a Hispanic group since he decreed that many young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children would be exempted from deportation and granted work permits valid for two years.
The immigration initiative, announced less than five months before the November elections, delighted many in the Latino community and drew renewed attention to the key Hispanic voting bloc and its potential for affecting the presidential election with its turnout and energy. Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and aides believe he could do even better this time.
Romney, who spoke to the group Thursday, backed off the tough anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric of the Republican primaries and vowed to address illegal immigration “in a civil but resolute manner.” He outlined plans to overhaul the green card system for immigrants with families and end immigration caps for their spouses and minor children.
But while he attacked Obama’s new plan to ease deportation rules as little more than a “stopgap measure,” he was vague about how he would treat immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents and refused to say whether he would reverse Obama’s policy.
Obama and his advisers clearly see an advantage on the issue, and Obama was expected to draw attention to his initiative Friday and call for an overhaul of the entire immigration system. He also was expected to renew his call for Congress to pass his job creation measures, which he has proposed to pay for with tax increases on the wealthy, an idea Republicans reject outright.
Though hardly monolithic in their approach to politics, a majority of Hispanics have been voting Democratic in recent elections. But Obama risked losing some support in part because Hispanics have been hard hit by the economy. What’s more, Latino leaders had also grown frustrated with Obama because he failed to deliver on his 2008 pledge to overhaul immigration and because his administration was deporting illegal immigrants in record numbers.
Then came last week’s announcement, which could benefit anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million immigrants in the U.S., depending on separate estimates.
Obama was to speak about two hours after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has been promoting a plan that would have dealt with young illegal immigrants in a similar fashion to what Obama accomplished administratively. Rubio’s effort was a response to Democratic legislation, called the DREAM Act, that would have created a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants.
Rubio, mentioned as a possible running mate for Romney, criticized Obama’s policy, saying it ignored the Constitution and bypassed Congress. Romney has said he was studying Rubio’s proposal but has not endorsed it.
During the Republican primaries, Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act — formally the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act — and complete a 2,000-mile border fence with Mexico to help stem illegal immigration.
Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod this week said Romney is “hopelessly twisted” on the issue of immigration. “He went as far to the right as he could in the primaries in order to become the nominee,” Axelrod said. “Now he’s desperately looking for a way out.”
Romney seized on the temporary status of Obama’s plan as his prime criticism. The Republican also vowed to offer illegal immigrants who serve in the military “a path to legal status,” which the campaign says ultimately could allow for full citizenship.
But Romney’s campaign could not immediately detail how many immigrants might be affected by his policies. Nor could they detail which would require legislative action.
“Despite his promises, President Obama has failed to address immigration reform,” Romney said. “For two years, this president had huge majorities in the House and Senate — he was free to pursue any policy he pleased. But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Nothing. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote.”
Romney also told the Latino officials that he would do away with Obama’s signature health care law. Often a huge applause line with his audiences, his declaration prompted just a few to clap and one person in the audience booed.
Obama’s campaign, which doesn’t draw much attention to the health care law on the campaign trail, has made it a top issue in Spanish-language ads, targeting an audience that is among the most uninsured in the country.
• Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Orlando contributed to this report.