President Obama deployed a top Cabinet secretary Wednesday to assure Hispanic leaders that the White House will take executive action this year to stop deportations for more illegal immigrants, trying to revive Hispanic voters’ backing of Democrats ahead of November’s elections.
“The question of executive action, my friends, is a ‘when’ question,” Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez assured attendees at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s convention.
He said Mr. Obama shares their values, despite having repeatedly put off thorny decisions on immigration.
Mr. Obama likely will deliver the same message when he speaks to the gathering Thursday — and will be met by protesters furious over his broken promise to issue executive action by the end of the summer to halt many deportations.
“During Hispanic Heritage Month, we urge the president to remember all the Latino families across the country separated because of his inaction,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, one of the groups organizing pickets outside of the convention center in Washington.
Immigration policy has deep resonance for Hispanics, who heavily backed Mr. Obama for re-election in 2012 after the president issued a policy stopping deportations for “dreamers,” or young adult illegal immigrants.
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But the other broken promises are building up. Mr. Obama vowed to pass an immigration bill during his first year in office, when he had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, but instead worked on health care, climate change and his economic stimulus. He renewed his promise in the 2012 election, but was unable to navigate a bill through the GOP-led House, and then broke his own self-imposed end-of-summer deadline for taking unilateral action to halt deportations.
“For us to be told that the executive action’s going to happen after the election is — I’m sorry to tell you this — the height of political cynicism,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican campaign operative who wants the GOP to embrace an immigration bill. “I mean, could it be more obvious and more blatant? Can’t you at least lie to me and tell me that’s not why you’re doing it?”
Still, Ms. Navarro’s fellow Republicans “haven’t been all that good either” on the issue. She said while she believes most Republicans want to pass an immigration bill, they have been swamped by a vocal minority.
That has left Hispanics who care about immigration — and the latest Gallup polling suggests they do — searching for champions to back.
Mr. Obama’s job approval ratings have tumbled among Hispanics, from 74 percent in early 2013 to 52 percent now, according to Gallup.
Gallup said the numbers are closely tied to Mr. Obama’s stance on immigration, rising ahead of the 2012 elections, when he was promising to do something, and then falling more recently as he put off action on the issue and turned to other problems.
Most recently, the president has had to grapple with a surge of illegal immigrant children and families jumping the southwest border, which Mr. Obama said left Americans with the impression that the country needs to work on border security.
He said he was putting off unilateral action until after the election in order not to have his moves get bogged down in politics.
But analysts say Mr. Obama delayed action at the behest of vulnerable Democratic senators who are facing tough re-election bids in conservative states and who feared a backlash from voters if the president issued a broad halt of deportations.
Now, however, the backlash has come from the other side of the debate, as Hispanic leaders have questioned whether their voters will turn out to support Democratic senators who urged Mr. Obama not to act.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and a leading party voice on the issue, said he is tired of immigrants having their interests shunted aside for political reasons.
He said Mr. Obama wouldn’t have put off action until after the election if the issue had been abortion rights or gay rights.
“I think he should have acted before the election,” Mr. Gutierrez told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute audience Wednesday, drawing enthusiastic applause. “All we did is make our people suffer even more, and the political issue of immigration is going to be there.”
Mr. Perez, the labor secretary, said Hispanics shouldn’t lose faith in Mr. Obama. He noted that the president’s commitment to immigration goes back to his time in the Illinois Senate.
“It is an issue that is all about his values and his leadership,” said Mr. Perez, whom Mr. Obama backed through a tricky confirmation battle in 2013 to become one of the highest-ranking Hispanics in the administration.