President Obama’s speech Friday to one of the country’s largest Hispanic organizations has changed from a potential trip through the gantlet into what amounts to a victory lap after he announced last week that he was unilaterally halting deportations of young illegal immigrants.
For presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, however, his challenge has only increased, and he has steadfastly refused to say whether he would leave the president’s new policy in place or repeal it.
Mr. Romney is scheduled to speak to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Orlando on Thursday, with Mr. Obama slated to follow a day later, and the deportation announcement will loom large for both men.
“Obama’s going to mention this policy change, and he’s going to get three standing ovations. There’s just no way around it. He’s going to be the conquering hero who saved the ‘Dreamers’ and lived to tell about it,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading immigrant-rights advocacy group. “He’s going to be a hero to the crowd, where he would have been a chump if he had not made this decision.”
On Friday, Mr. Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said they would stop deporting most illegal immigrants younger than 30 who have completed high school, earned an equivalency degree or join the U.S. military. Those are the people known as “Dreamers” after the Dream Act, legislation that never passed Congress but which was designed to grant them a path to citizenship.
Mr. Obama’s decision was an election-year reversal — for two years both he and Ms. Napolitano had said they didn’t have that kind of broad categorical authority — and so far it has playing well with voters, according to early polling.
Just as critically, it has left Mr. Romney’s campaign flummoxed.
Mr. Romney has staked out the most hard-line position of any major party presidential nominee in history on immigration, and that has left him open to bruising attacks from immigrant-rights advocates. Now he and his campaign staff are struggling to craft a response to Mr. Obama’s move.
This weekend Mr. Romney told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program that he would pursue a broader immigration reform that would supersede what Mr. Obama did on deportations — though he declined to say whether he would leave the policy in place while he worked on his broader solution.
On Wednesday, on a conference call with reporters organized by the Romney campaign to talk about the economy, reporters instead peppered top policy adviser Lanhee Chen with questions about immigration.
Mr. Chen declined to give any specifics, pointing to Mr. Romney’s NALEO speech instead. After several more immigration questions the campaign ended the call.
Alberto Martinez, a Romney spokesman, later told The Washington Times that Hispanic voters will make the voting decisions on economic issues. He also said Mr. Obama still has some political jeopardy on immigration since he still hasn’t lived up to his full 2008 campaign promise to write a broad immigration reform bill that would legalize most illegal immigrants.
“Like all Americans, Hispanics will vote their pocketbooks in November,” Mr. Martinez said. “We’re pursuing an aggressive plan to share Gov. Romney’s optimistic vision for creating jobs through a pro-growth agenda, and reversing President Obama’s failed economic policies which have caused real pain for Hispanics.”
Republicans say Mr. Romney is making unprecedented outreach efforts to Hispanics for a Republican nominee — but so is Mr. Obama, and his announcement last week removes some of the political roadblocks he had.
Mr. Sharry said the announcement shows the president is willing to risk political capital on behalf of the issue, something he had been reluctant to do before.
“It’s true that immigration isn’t the No. 1 issue for Latinos but it became a kind of focal point for a president who made big promises [but] delivered record deportations,” Mr. Sharry said. “That all changed last Friday. He put major skin in the game.”
Immigration has proved a nettlesome issue for the past decade as first President George W. Bush and then Mr. Obama failed to build successful coalitions in Congress.
But with Hispanics playing an ever-larger role in presidential politics, the issue’s time may have come. Hispanics make up a significant chunk of voters in swing states such as Nevada, Florida and Colorado.
Early polling suggests as many as two-thirds of voters support Mr. Obama’s move, and it has energized Hispanic voters.
Some congressional Republicans are pushing back, saying the halt in deportations opens the door to fraud and goes beyond the president’s powers.
On Wednesday House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, wrote asking whether the Justice Department has produced any new legal opinion to back up the president’s claim of authority.
“The American people and Congress have a right to know what your legal justification is for engaging in an action that a little over one year ago you believed was beyond the scope of the authority of the executive branch,” Mr. Smith said.
Still, Mr. Obama and his aides will have plenty of chances to take victory laps before major Hispanic audiences.
Next week the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) holds its conference in Orlando, and next month the National Council of La Raza, the biggest Hispanic umbrella group in the country, holds its conference in Las Vegas.
In 2008 Mr. Obama and Republicans’ nominee, Sen. John McCain, spoke at all three. In fact, the NCLR conference in San Diego was where Mr. Obama made his campaign pledge to write an immigration bill.
This year Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have only committed to NALEO.
Mr. Romney has declined LULAC’s invitation, and Mr. Obama is sending Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other officials in his stead.
NCLR is still awaiting answers for its invitations, but analysts said they’d be surprised if either man attends.