WASHINGTON: U.S. President Barack Obama Friday defended his decision to lift the threat of deportation for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, saying it gave them an overdue “sense of hope,” in his first speech to a Latino group since he announced the measure.
The speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials near Orlando, Florida also comes a day after the group gave a cool reception to Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney and his newly softened stance on immigration.
“It was the right thing to do,” Obama declared, challenging Republicans in Congress to join him finally on a big, broad fix of the U.S. immigration laws.
Obama’s 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. Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and aides believe he could do better this time.
While the economy continues to dominate the presidential race, Obama’s team was mindful that anything – including issues like immigration or gay marriage – could shift the balance in the contest, which surveys show is still in the balance with less than five months to go before the polls.
A new Associated Press-GfK survey released Friday showed that Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage did little to shift U.S. views on the subject, but that the president fired up his core supporters. More young people, liberals and Democrats say they strongly approve of Obama’s handling of same-sex marriage than said they did before he disclosed his new position last month.
The AP-GfK poll showed that voters, at least nationally, had not chosen to abandon the president.
When asked which candidate Americans trust would do a better job of handling social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, there was little change from a poll taken about a week before Obama’s May 9 announcement; 52 percent now side with Obama, compared with 36 percent for Romney.
More Democrats and liberals said they strongly approved of the president’s handling of gay marriage than did last August; 41 percent of Democrats now say that, compared with 26 percent back then, and 48 percent of liberals have that view, up from 28 percent almost a year ago.
But a potential problem for the president is that his announcement also fired up the right against him. More Republicans and conservatives said they strongly disapprove of his handling of the issue now than before; 53 percent of Republicans said that, compared with 45 percent in August, and 52 percent of conservatives say as much now, up from 43 percent back then.
The issue could compel them to turn out in droves to vote against Obama.
Romney, who spoke to the Hispanic 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 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, with Obama expected to draw attention to his initiative Friday and call for an overhaul of the entire immigration system. He was also 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.
Obama risked losing some support in part because Hispanics have been hard hit by the economy.
Latino leaders had also grown frustrated with Obama because of his failure to deliver on his 2008 pledge to overhaul immigration, with his administration having deported record numbers of illegal immigrants.