MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Sen. Barack Obama told the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy group yesterday that he earned their support for his presidential campaign by marching in last year’s May 1 immigrant rallies and challenged them to learn whether others met that standard.
“Find out how many senators appeared before an immigration rally last year. Who was talking the talk, and who walked the walk — because I walked,” Mr. Obama said at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention in Miami Beach. “I didn’t run away from the issue, and I didn’t just talk about it in front of Latino audiences.”
The Illinois Democrat said the recent Senate immigration debate “was both ugly and racist in a way we haven’t see since the struggle for civil rights.”
The immigration bill failed late last month when a majority of senators, including 16 members of the Democratic caucus joined most Republicans in a filibuster. It would have combined more border-security spending and new workplace-enforcement rules with a guest-worker program for future workers and a path to citizenship for most illegal aliens.
The bill’s collapse galvanized Hispanic voters and advocacy groups, who say it exposed an anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic strain among American voters. The groups are vowing to fight back by pointing out when they think the debate turns hateful and are promising to register Hispanic voters so they can show their displeasure at the polls.
Both Mr. Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, supported the bill and yesterday assured NCLR that they will work to pass a bill as president.
In remarks during a morning brunch, Mrs. Clinton said she has been trying “to understand where all of the venom and the incredible anxiety came from” in the immigration debate.
“I am very disappointed, and I was really quite offended by the tone of the debate and some of what was said by outside parties who were trying to influence the debate,” she said.
She blamed the tone on what she called a poor economy under President Bush.
“Until recently, I did not hear the kind of insecurity and opposition to bringing immigrants into American society as I hear today,” she said, adding that when her husband was in office, “people were too busy getting a better future for themselves.”
“They didn’t talk to me about what was or wasn’t on their minds about immigration,” she said.
In response to two audience questions, Mrs. Clinton would not promise to end large-scale raids on illegal aliens in the workplace, which have led to families being separated. Instead, she said she would ask her Homeland Security Department to target employers as well.
“It is time they start going after the employers who abuse and exploit undocumented workers instead of just going after the workers themselves,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton spoke in an informal setting designed more like a late-night TV-interview set. Sitting in a red armchair, she first fielded soft questions from Monica Lozano, publisher and CEO of La Opinion, and then answered five questions from the audience.