LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – President Obama aggressively attacked Republican opposition to immigration reform on Friday while trumpeting his steps to make it easier for the children of illegal immigrants to stay in the country legally.
At a conference of Latino officeholders that Mitt Romney addressed a day earlier, Obama criticized his Republican opponent several times, although never by name, for opposing legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants.
“It’s long past time we gave them a sense of hope,” Obama told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Your speaker from yesterday has a different view. In his speech, he said that when he makes a promise to you, he’ll keep it. Well, he has promised to veto the Dream Act, and we should take him at his word.”
The twin speeches within 24 hours showcased divergent views during the first general election clash over immigration, a controversial topic that is becoming a driving factor in the race.
Obama was received far more warmly than Romney, triggering several standing ovations, numerous fist jabs from the crowd, and long, extended cheers. He started with a little bit of Spanish – saying, essentially, that it was good to be among many friends — something Romney didn’t attempt to do.
Obama last week announced a shift in policy that has been hailed by immigrant advocacy groups, turning an event at which he could have been booed into a festive one that at times felt like a campaign rally. Obama bypassed Congress to immediately stop certain deportations and grant work permits to an estimated 800,000 younger illegal immigrants, a major change but an initiative that falls short of the Dream Act, which would establish a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants.
“Lifting the shadows of deportations and giving them hope – it was the right thing to do! The right thing to do!” Obama said. “To those who are saying that 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 three and a half years.”
Romney on Thursday called Obama’s policy “a temporary measure that he seems to think will be just enough to get him through the election.” He also suggested that he would, if elected, rescind Obama’s order and replace it with a plan that would make it easier to obtain green cards and temporary worker visas.
Hispanics are a growing part of the political electorate, and could play a major role in several crucial swing states, particularly Colorado, Nevada, and Florida. Obama at this point has an overwhelming edge among Hispanics, with polls giving him more than a 2-to-1 advantage over Romney.
A poll released Friday found that Obama is extending his lead over Romney among Latinos in key battleground states. The poll, conducted by Latino Decisions, found that Obama had a 63 percent to 27 percent lead over Romney among Latinos in five swing states. The margin was greater in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.
The poll also found that support for Obama had intensified after his announcement last week, with 60 percent of respondents describing themselves as “very enthusiastic.”
In one of the most significant findings, 48 percent of respondents said they were more motivated to vote in 2012 than they were four years ago, compared with 29 percent who said they were more enthusiastic in 2008.
In January, the same pollsters found that 38 percent of Latino respondents were more enthusiastic about this year’s election, while 46 percent said they were more enthusiastic in 2008.
Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and his campaign is trying to increase that figure. Romney’s campaign has been trying to lower it and has a goal of winning about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide.
Obama returned to the NALEO conference for the first time since 2008, when he addressed the crowd as a candidate. At the time he said that he would bring 12 million illegal immigrants “out of the shadows by requiring them to take steps to become legal citizens.”
“That is a priority I will pursue from my very first day,” he pledged. But instead, Obama prioritized health care reform and changes in financial regulations. Immigration reform became tied up in Congress and never gained traction.
Although Obama said on Friday that he has done what he can “without the help of Congress for more than three years now,” during the first two years of his term his party controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Romney has sought to exploit the lack of progress on immigration, as well as the economic hardships that have hit Latinos particularly hard.
‘‘Despite his promises, President Obama has failed to address immigration reform,’’ Romney said on Thursday. ‘‘He failed to act until facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote.’’
Toward the end of his speech on Friday, Obama spoke in personal terms about young, hopeful immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally.
“When I meet these young people . . . I see myself,” he said. “Who knows what they might achieve. I see my daughters and my nieces and my nephews. Who knows what they might achieve if we just give them a chance?”
Obama also defended his signature health care law, which the Supreme Court will rule on within days.
“In America, we believe you shouldn’t go broke because you get sick,” he said, noting that Latinos have a higher rate of uninsured than any other demographic group. “So after a century of trying, we finally passed reform that will make health care affordable and available for every American.”
Several at the conference said afterward that Obama’s actions last week changed the tenor significantly and gave them a sense that Obama was trying to do as much as he could.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Ross Romero, a Democratic state senator from Utah. “It would have been much different if he came to only promise things instead of talk about what he had done recently.”
“Romney, when you hear what he has to say, it’s very bland,” said Paul Lopez, a Democratic city councilman in Denver. “We’re not invisible, and we shouldn’t be treated as such.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who Romney said this week was among those being “thoroughly vetted” for vice president, never mentioned Romney in his speech to the conference but said he was hopeful that progress on immigration could be made.
“Both my head and my heart tell me that today perhaps we are as close as we’ve ever been to a critical turning point in the debate about immigration,” Rubio said.
He pleaded for compassion for those who immigrated to the country illegally (“Who among us would not do whatever we could to feed our children, and provide for them a better future?” he asked), and he lamented that the topic has become so divisive.
Rubio also highlighted what many consider to be the most vexing problem on immigration: what to do with the illegal immigrants who are in the country.
“Here’s the truth, if we’re honest with ourselves: We don’t know yet,” he said. “It’s not easy. I know we’re not going to round up and deport 12 million people. I know we’re not going to grant amnesty to 12 million people. Somewhere between those two ideas is the solution.”