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Will Immigration Plan Sway Latinos To Obama's Side?


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

When President Obama addresses a large gathering of Latino politicians later today in Florida, he's likely to get a warm reception. Just last week, Mr. Obama announced that hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants who came to this country as children can stay in the U.S. - at least temporarily.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney criticized that policy when he spoke to the same group yesterday. The twin speeches highlight the important role that Latino voters could play in the November election.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Mitt Romney can't afford to write off the Latino vote. But he's also worried about offending conservatives whose support he courted during the GOP primaries with a hard line against illegal immigration. Yesterday, Romney tried to tiptoe through that minefield with a vague promise to find a permanent fix for immigration. And he criticized President Obama's temporary reprieve for young illegal immigrants as a cynical, election year stunt.


MITT ROMNEY: After three-and-a-half years of putting every issue from loan guarantees to his donors, to Cash for Clunkers, putting all those things before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on day one, but didn't. I think you deserve better.

HORSLEY: Many of the Latino politicians in Romney's audience weren't buying it. Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez complains it was the Republicans in Congress who blocked immigration reform. They also filibustered the so-called DREAM Act, which would have given young illegal immigrants a path to legal status.

PAUL LOPEZ: Everybody knows the reason why the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform doesn't move forward is because we have a bigoted group of Republicans that won't get out of the way. They know that if Latinos become citizens and educated, that means they'll vote, and that means that the Republican Party has no future in this country.

HORSLEY: Colorado is one of the swing states where Latino turnout could be a significant factor in November. Nationwide, Latinos voted two to one for Mr. Obama in 2008, and their share of the electorate has increased in the years since.

Romney has acknowledged that challenge, and he told the Latino politicians yesterday while they don't agree on everything, they do share common goals.

Union leader Eliseo Medina was skeptical, saying Romney's immigration tap dance left too many unanswered questions.

ELISEO MEDINA: He is not the candidate for the Latino community or for America. He still doesn't get what the average worker is going through. He doesn't get what Latinos are going through. And I think that we need to make sure people know so they can make their choice.

HORSLEY: Medina's largely Latino union of service employees just launched a major effort to register and mobilize voters in eight battleground states, including Colorado, Virginia and Florida.

While immigration is a hot-button issue, Dallas City Councilwoman Pauline Medrano stresses that it's not the only thing Latino voters are concerned about.

PAULINE MEDRANO: We're kind of different, but we're no different from all other ethnic groups, where the economy has hit us bad, jobs. We want quality education, like everyone else.

HORSLEY: In fact, Romney got a polite round of applause yesterday when he promised to give low-income parents more choice in the schools their children attend. He also tailored his standard critique of the president's economic stewardship, noting that Latino workers have been hit particularly hard during the downturn.


ROMNEY: I'd ask each of you to honestly look at the last three-and-a-half years and ask whether we can do better. Is the America of 11 percent Hispanic unemployment the America of our dreams? We can do better.

HORSLEY: That argument may have swayed some people in the audience yesterday. School board member John Vargas of Hawthorne, California was impressed by Romney's speech, and says some of his friends are now willing to give the Republican hopeful a second look.

JOHN VARGAS: I think it resonated with a lot of people - more than I expected actually, from this crowd, which is traditionally more of a Democratic lean. But I think he did a really good job.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama will make his own pitch for support to the Latino politicians this afternoon, no doubt highlighting his new immigration policy. Neither candidate can ignore this fast-growing slice of the electorate, especially in a race that's expected to be so close.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.