CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democrats broke yet another barrier Wednesday when they invited an illegal immigrant young adult onto the stage at their nominating convention in Charlotte — part of a historic Hispanic outreach program the party hopes will cement ties to the fast-growing ethnic voting bloc in the country.
It’s likely the first time an illegal immigrant has taken the podium at a major party convention, and highlights President Obama’s own stance on the issue: The student, Benita Veliz, had her deportation halted under Mr. Obama’s non-deportation policies.
In a pointed political appeal, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who has become his party’s de facto leader in pushing immigration reforms, said the fate of Ms. Veliz and a million other illegal immigrants rests on whether Mr. Obama gets re-elected.
“President Obama is protecting immigrants. Mitt Romney wants to send them back,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “This election will determine whether high school valedictorians, football team captains, and student council presidents will be treated with respect — or treated like suspects. Whether they reach their dreams, or whether Mitt Romney turns their dreams into nightmares.”
But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped draft the Arizona immigration crackdown law and stiffer enforcement language in the Republicans’ 2012 platform, said that in hosting Ms. Veliz, the Democratic National Convention is sending the wrong message.
“The DNC leaders are now portraying law breakers as heroes,” he said. “They are promoting the myth that Dream Act amnesty recipients are not responsible for their law breaking, referring them as ‘children.’ … When these adults choose to stay illegally in the United States in defiance of federal law, they are defying our country’s laws. Now the DNC is cheering them on.”
The Democrats’ convention reflects the rising power of Hispanics in American politics, with the party putting one Hispanic after another on the podium, trying to counter Republicans who highlighted their own cadre of telegenic rising Hispanic stars, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz.
Democrats responded with speeches by talk-show host Cristina Saralegui, who has been labeled the Latina Oprah; keynote speaker Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio; and Ms. Veliz, the illegal immigrant who spoke to delegates just ahead of Ms. Saralegui.
Mr. Veliz said she was brought to the U.S. as a child, graduated as valedictorian of her high school at 16 and earned a double-major degree from college at 20.
“I’ve had to live almost my entire life knowing I could be deported just because of the way I came here,” she said. “President Obama fought for the Dream Act to help people like me.”
The Dream Act was legislation the Senate blocked by filibuster in 2010 that would have legalized most illegal immigrants under age 30.
Eighteen months after it failed, and after repeatedly saying he didn’t have the power to act unilaterally, Mr. Obama reversed himself and said he could, in fact, stop deportations for those who would have qualified for the Dream Act — known as “dreamers.”
His policy does not grant citizenship, but does allow a tentative legal status and gives them the chance to work in the U.S. legally.
That move helped defuse pent-up anger among Hispanics who had long argued the president had the authority to issue the non-deportation order.
“I think I’m a reflection of a community of people. I was frustrated, I was angry, I thought that things didn’t happen quick enough, I shared those with others, and I’m [now] very happy,” Mr. Gutierrez told reporters Wednesday ahead of his speech.
Republicans have decried Mr. Obama’s order as illegal, and said adding those new legal workers will only hurt unemployed Americans.
“Giving amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants under 30 would encourage more illegal immigration and make it harder for 23 million Americans to find full-time jobs,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who has pushed for stricter immigration enforcement.
Mr. Romney has criticized Mr. Obama’s non-deportation policy as too flimsy, though his campaign won’t say whether he would leave it in place if he wins the White House. Instead, they refer to a speech in which the candidate warned future presidents could alter it.
Overall, Mr. Romney has staked out a position as the most fervent opponent of illegal immigration of any major party presidential nominee.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has tried to walk a tricky line, boosting deportations of illegal immigrants but carving out large categories and exempting them from being deported.
Hispanic outreach is part of a broader appeal Democrats are making to convince minorities, women, gay voters and other specific demographics that they have more to lose on domestic issues by voting for Mr. Romney.
One key ingredient is the flood of minority faces from the podium, where an Hispanic mayor from San Antonio became the first Hispanicto deliver a party’s keynote address on Tuesday — part of a night that also highlighted top black officials nationwide.
“The people on stage yesterday — you can’t compare that to any other convention,” said Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
On the sidelines of the convention, Democrats have been holding caucuses to fire up various ethnic groups.
Mr. Honda said that a decade ago the Asian caucus members at conventions could be counted on one hand, but this year there are 321 here.