LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — President Obama took a victory lap Friday with Hispanic leaders, saying he moved to halt deportations of young illegal immigrants because he was tired of fighting a losing battle in Congress.
And he pointedly attacked his opponent in November, Mitt Romney, saying Hispanics shouldn’t trust the Republican’s newfound softer tone on the issue but look back to the stances he staked out during the primary.
“He has promised to veto the Dream Act, and we should take him at his word,” Mr. Obama said, adding pointedly, “Just sayin’.”
Drawing repeatedly rounds of applause from the annual conference of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), meeting at Disney World, Mr. Obama said he had to act last week to cancel deportations for young illegal immigrants because Congress had failed to send such a bill to his desk.
And he countered those such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, who said they’d been making progress on the Dream Act but contended that Mr. Obama’s unilateral move short-circuited their efforts.
“To those who are saying Congress should be the one to fix this — absolutely. For those who say we should do this in a bipartisan fashion — absolutely. My door’s been open for 3½ years. They know where to find me,” Mr. Obama said.
The president said his unilateral action doesn’t remove the pressure from Congress to still take action, both on the young illegal immigrants and the broader population estimated at more than 11 million.
Mr. Obama never mentioned Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, by name but repeatedly referred to the former Massachusetts governor’s speech to the same audience on Thursday.
In his remarks, Mr. Romney had said the deportation halt was a stopgap measure that fell short of the president’s own campaign promises, though he wouldn’t say whether he’d leave Mr. Obama’s order in place as president. Mr. Romney instead promised a long-term solution for immigration and vowed “when I make a promise to you, I will keep it.”
Mr. Obama on Friday agreed Hispanics should take him at his word — and pointed back to Mr. Romney’s vow during the primaries to veto the Dream Act.
Where Mr. Romney received a polite reception from NALEO, Mr. Obama was welcomed as a hero. Far more people stood on chairs to snap photos, and the room was noticeably more crowded for the president’s speech.
He also drew several standing ovations, including when he touted his health care law.
Well after he left, a man was shouting, “Viva Obama!” in the conference center ballroom.
In its official response to the president’s speech the Romney campaign ignored immigration — though Mr. Romney himself had focused heavily on it when he spoke here. Instead, the campaign said Mr. Obama has failed to improve the economic situation for Hispanics.
“In 2008, candidate Obama promised NALEO he would create new jobs and end the housing crisis. Four years later, President Obama is back asking for more time,” said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
The Romney campaign has argued that Hispanic voters won’t vote chiefly on immigration issues, but rather on the kinds of pocketbook issues the candidate is highlighting.
Still, the issue of immigration loomed large for this crowd.
“There are too many people that have concluded that this issue unresolved is more powerful. They want it to stay unresolved,” he said.
He had been working on a Republican version of the Dream Act that would have granted a legal status but not a path to citizenship to illegal immigrant students and young adults.
Mr. Romney had previously had kind words for that type of plan — though on Thursday he only talked about one specific category, saying he would grant citizenship rights to any illegal immigrant who joins the U.S. military.
Hispanic activists for years had been pressuring Mr. Obama to take unilateral action to halt deportations. Mr. Obama had repeatedly declined, saying he didn’t have the authority to do so.
But last Friday he reversed course and said he did have the authority, issuing a categorical stay of deportation — though each case will be reviewed independently — for those under 30 who were brought to the U.S. as children, who have completed high school or earned a GED, and who don’t have felonies or multiple misdemeanors on their records.
Activists here said the decision earned Mr. Obama some much-needed credibility after three years of relatively little action. Still, they noted his administration continues to set records for deportations.
During Mr. Obama’s tenure immigration authorities have deported nearly 1.4 million people, which activists here said is a dubious record.