Romney and Obama battle for key Latino vote


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney exchanged barbs in speeches to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando, Florida yesterday and Thursday.

Both men hope to win a significant share of the Hispanic vote, particularly in the swing states of Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia where the Latino presence has grown most rapidly. Fifty-four million Latinos now represent one-sixth of the US population.

Mr Romney received a lukewarm reception when he tempered his earlier harsh message on immigration on Thursday.

Mr Obama was applauded and cheered through much of his speech yesterday, particularly when he spoke of the executive order he issued to halt the deportation of more than 800,000 mostly Hispanic young people who were brought to the US as children, and when he evoked his desire to sign the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for them.

Mr Romney began by criticising Mr Obama’s record on the economy, pointing out that unemployment among Hispanics is three points higher than the US average, at 11 per cent.

“Over two million more Hispanics are living in poverty today than the day President Obama took office,” he said.

Mr Obama would “imply that you really don’t have an alternative,” he added. “He’s taking your vote for granted.”

Mr Romney then delivered his standard speech about saving the economy by slashing taxes and government.

In contrast, Mr Obama began his speech with a paean to immigration. “Whether our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, were brought here on slave ships, signed at Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande, their diversity not only enriched this country, it helped build the greatest economic engine the world has ever known,” he said.

The audience cheered when Mr Obama listed measures he has taken which have helped Latinos, including individual grants for college education and investment in community colleges, as well as 18 different tax cuts for small businesses.

Republicans, Mr Obama said, “believe the best way to grow the economy is from the top down. They want to roll back regulations, make $5 trillion in tax cuts, including a 25 per cent tax cut for every millionaire in the country.

“And they want to pay for it by raising middle class taxes and gutting middle class priorities like education and training and healthcare and medical research.”

After outlining their proposed economic policies, both candidates turned to the topic that most interested their Hispanic audience: immigration. “Despite his promises, President Obama has failed to address immigration reform,” Mr Romney said.

“For two years, this president had huge majorities in the house and senate – he was free to pursue any policy he pleased. But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system.”

Referring to Mr Obama’s executive order of June 15th halting the deportation of youths who would gain legal status under the Dream Act if congress passed it, Mr Romney said Mr Obama “failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote . . . After three and a half years of putting every issue . . .before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on day one.”

“My administration has been doing what we can without the help of congress for more than three years now,” Mr Obama countered.

“Last week . . . we announced that we are lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. We should have passed the Dream Act a long time ago . . .When it came up for a vote one and a half years ago, Republicans in congress blocked it.”

Mr Romney last year promised to veto the Dream Act if he is elected, and during the Republican primaries proposed the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants. On Thursday, he again evaded the question of whether he would allow Mr Obama’s executive order to stand, saying “I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure” if he is elected.

Mr Romney left details of his “long-term solution” sketchy, but promised to “address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner”.

He said he would give priority to keeping families together in the issuance of permanent residence permits, and said he would “staple a green card to the diploma” of immigrants who earn advanced degrees in the US.

He also promised “a path to legal status” for those who serve in the military.

Mr Obama said the “dream babies” – young people who would be eligible for legal status under the Dream Act – “are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, they are Americans through and through. In every single way but on paper.”

Mr Obama concluded with the words of César Chávez, the labour and civil rights activist who is the hero of many American Latinos: “Sí, se puede” – yes, we can.