President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., spoke in Orlando Friday to a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and offered contrasting visions of how America should deal with immigration.
Obama is leading his presumptive Republican opponent -- former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts -- among Hispanics in the polls. Looking to preserve his lead with that group, Obama took off the gloves to rip into Romney who spoke to NALEO on Thursday.
The president defended his decision, made earlier in the month and announced last week, that the administration would no longer push for the deportation of most young illegal immigrants, insisting “it was the right thing to do.”
Obama also took aim at his critics in the Republican Party who have bashed him for using an executive order to end the deportation of young illegal aliens and ignoring Congress.
Saying that immigration reform should be done through Congress and handled in “a bipartisan fashion,” Obama said he has been more than willing to work with the GOP on it but they are not playing ball with him.
“My door's been open for three-and-a-half years,” Obama insisted. “They know where to find me."
Noting that Republicans in the recent past, including George W. Bush and John McCain, had been working on immigration reform, Obama maintained that a “small faction” was now forcing the GOP to block any such efforts. While he did not call it out by name, Obama seems to have been referencing the tea party movement.
Obama took aim at Romney, noting that the Republican candidate had promised to veto the DREAM Act which would help establish a path to citizenship for illegal aliens who have served in the military or are going to college.
"We should have passed the DREAM Act a long time ago," Obama said on Friday.
Obama also looked to counter Romney’s argument that Hispanics have suffered more economically during the president’s tenure in the White House. In his remarks to NALEO on Thursday, Romney attacked Obama’s policies, noting that 11 percent of Hispanics are unemployed compared to the national average of 8.2 percent.
“The economy isn't where it needs to be,” Obama admitted before bashing Romney’s economic policies, insisting that the GOP would lower taxes for just the highest earning Americans.
"We don't need any more top-down economics,” Obama said.
Speaking before Obama addressed the crowd, Rubio called for a “balanced approach” on immigration and generally threw few barbs at the president, preferring to focus on presenting his own case.
“I was tempted to come here today and rip open the policies of the administration,” admitted Rubio. “I know in a few moments you’ll hear from the president. I was tempted to come here and tell you, ‘Hey, he hasn’t been here in three years, what a coincidence, it’s an election year.’ I was tempted to tell you, ‘Why didn’t he make this issue a priority?’ Well, I guess I just did tell you. But, that’s not the direction I want to go in my speech. Because if I did, if that’s what I came here to talk to you about, then I would be doing the exact same thing that I just criticized.”
Besides that jab at Obama, Rubio focused more on immigration, insisting that the issue could not be solved if it remains a political hot potato and arguing that there are other issues that are important to the Hispanic community.
“One of the things that frustrates me sometimes is that when people speak to Hispanics and Latinos, they only want to talk about immigration,” Rubio told the crowd. “And the point that I make is that immigration is a very important issue in the Hispanic community, but the vast majority of us do not wake up in the morning and think about immigration all day. We wake up in the morning and have the same worries, the same hopes, and the same fears as everybody else in this country. We worry about making payroll on Friday. We worry about balancing our family’s budget at the end of the month. We worry about the schools that our kids go to. We worry about whether tomorrow will be better for them than it has been for us.
“I’ve abandoned my hopes of only talking about the economy and jobs, as important as that may be, for one moment and for one day, in hopes of speaking frankly to you about the issues of immigration,” Rubio said as he focused on immigration.
“This is not a simple issue,” Rubio insisted. “Both sides like to talk about this issue like it is an easy yes or no answer. It is much more complicated than that. And those of us involved in the debate need to start to recognize that openly. That both sides of it raise valid points.”
Rubio said both sides look to politicize the issue. “It is a powerful political issue,” he said. “I have seen people use it to raise money. I have seen people take the legitimate concerns about illegal immigration and turn it into panic. And turn that panic into fear and anger. And turn that anger into votes and money. I have also seen people go in the other direction. Anyone who disagrees with their ideas on illegal immigration is anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. That’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. Everything is about politics.”
Rubio said that the only way the immigration problems could be solved was to take them out of the political arena.
“As long as this issue of immigration is a political ping-pong that each side uses to win elections and influence votes, I’m telling you it won’t get solved,” Rubio said. “Because there are too many people who have concluded that this issue unresolved is more powerful. They want it to stay unresolved. It’s easier to use to influence elections. It’s easier to use to raise money.
“The only way to solve it is a balanced approach that recognizes that this is complicated,” Rubio continued. “And I think the way you have to do it is you have to approach it, No. 1, by understanding that we have to win the confidence of the American people back. The confidence that we’re serious about discouraging illegal immigration in the future and that’s why enforcement processes are important as part of any reform. But I also think we have to reform our legal immigration system. I tell people all the time, the single greatest contributor to illegal immigration is a burdensome, bureaucratic, and complicated legal immigration process.”
Rubio said the federal government needed to “reform and modernize our legal immigration system” in order to “win the confidence of the American people back” and to tackle the “issue of the millions of people who are undocumented.”
The senator insisted that there remained no easy answers to deal with the immigration problems.
“I know we’re not going to round up and deport 12 million people,” Rubio said. “I know we’re not going to grant amnesty to 12 million people. And somewhere between those two ideas is the solution. That will never be easy. But I promise you it will get easier to find if we have a legal immigration system that works. And the confidence of the American people that we’re serious about enforcing our laws.”
While Rubio did not concentrate his fire on Obama, the Romney camp took aim at the Democrat incumbent in the White House.
“When President Obama last appeared in front of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, he promised to create jobs and help restore the American dream,” said Alberto Martinez, a spokesman for Romney on Friday. “Four years later, with millions of Hispanics still unemployed and living in poverty, it’s clear President Obama simply hasn’t lived up to his own promises. As president, Mitt Romney will work from day one to help get Hispanics and all Americans back to work again.”
The Romney team also sent out U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., to hammer Obama after his speech in Orlando.
“President Obama's attacks on job creators and small businesses are attacks on the Hispanic community,” said Diaz-Balart. “Like all Americans, the Hispanic community's greatest concerns heading into the election in November are jobs and the economy. President Obama has demonstrated that he would rather change the subject than talk about our nation's suffering economy, but we won't be fooled by the shell games and the last-minute political gimmickry President Obama is playing to distract from his record. The Hispanic community values entrepreneurship and family-owned businesses, and we deserve a leader in Washington who is dedicated to creating an environment where our values, our goals, and our dreams of prosperity can become reality.”
Besides speaking in Orlando, Obama campaigned in Tampa on Friday as he continues his efforts to keep Florida in his column in November.
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