By Justin Sink - 06/21/12 04:23 PM EDT
Mitt Romney accused President Obama of taking Hispanic voters for granted in a major address Thursday to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee said Obama, who will speak to the same group on Friday, had not followed through on his promises on immigration reform and was pandering to Hispanics with a decision last week to no longer deport illegal immigrants who came to the nation as children.
“Tomorrow, President Obama will speak here, for the first time since his last campaign. He may admit that he hasn’t kept every promise. And he’ll probably say that, even though you aren’t better off today than you were four years ago, things could be worse,” Romney said.
“He’ll imply that you really don’t have an alternative. He’s taking your vote for granted,” Romney continued. “I’ve come here today with a simple message: You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected. And your voice is more important now than ever before.”
Romney has been off-balance since Obama’s announcement of the change in deportation policy, and faced enormous pressure to deliver a strong address in Orlando. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ken.) earlier this week said his caucus would be looking for Romney to set the party’s message on immigration issues.
Romney offered new details on how he’d tackle immigration reform, an issue that divides his party and is seen as crucial in an election against Obama that could come down to Hispanic voters in swing states.
He also reversed course on a key part of the DREAM Act, pledging to provide permanent residency for illegal immigrants who came to the United States and children and graduate from college. This is a major shift from Romney’s message in the GOP primaries, when he only pledged to provide that path for illegal immigrants who serve in the military.
The DREAM Act would provide a path for legal residence for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who go to college or serve in the military. When Obama announced the deportation decision last week, he scolded Republicans in Congress for holding the bill up.
But Romney again avoided saying whether he'd uphold Obama’s move on deportations.
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive action. The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure,” Romney said. “As President, I won’t settle for a stop-gap measure.”
The Obama campaign blasted back Thursday, arguing voters should look to Romney's previous comments on immigration when evaluating his plan.
“In front of an audience of Republican primary voters, he called the DREAM Act a ‘handout’ and promised to veto it. Now, after seven days of refusing to say whether or not he’d repeal the Obama administration’s immigration action that prevents young people who were brought here through no fault of their own as children from being deported, we should take him at his word that he will veto the DREAM Act as president,” said Obama spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain.
Romney said he would make it easier for the spouses and children of legal immigrants to get green cards, saying they would no longer be subject to caps.
“And we will eliminate other forms of bureaucratic red tape that keep families from being together,” Romney said to applause from the assembled crowd.
Detailing the specifics of his plan, Romney advocated for increases in immigration caps, especially for highly-skilled immigrants that could fill science and technology jobs for which there is a shortage of qualified American workers.
Other aspects of his proposal include reforming the temporary worker visa system to make it easier for agricultural workers to get temporary visas, and a change in policy that would give legal permanent residents the same priority as citizens when applying to bring family to the United States.
Romney promised to implement policy to ensure illegal immigration does not become a better alternative for those looking to come to the United States.
“We must also make legal immigration more attractive than illegal immigration, so that people are rewarded for waiting patiently in line,” Romney said. “That’s why my administration will establish a strong employment verification system so that every business can know with confidence that the people it hires are legally eligible for employment.”
Romney's added that he would push for the completion of a “high tech” border fence and beef up border security.
Romney needs to either depress Hispanic turnout for Obama or narrow the gap between he and the president among Hispanic voters, a group the president easily won in 2008.
In making his case, Romney argued that had immigration been a true priority for the White House, Obama would have pushed reform when Democrats controlled Congress.
"For two years, this President had huge majorities in the House and Senate – he was free to pursue any policy he pleased," Romney will say. “But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote.”
Romney also repeatedly hammered Obama over his economic performance, saying "Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard" by the recession.
"The middle class has been crushed under President Obama," Romney said. "More Americans are living in poverty today than at any point in history. Over two million more Hispanics are living in poverty today than the day President Obama took office."
According to a Beck Research survey of registered Hispanic voters released last month, respondents were more likely to cite creating new jobs and improving the economy as the most important issue of the November election, even over concerns about immigration and education.
"Is the America of 11 percent Hispanic unemployment the America of our dreams?" Romney asked. "I know we can do better."
This story was posted at 12:23 p.m. and was updated at 1:27 p.m.