In a high-profile address to Latinos Thursday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said President Barack Obama had "failed to address immigration reform" after promising to do so during the 2008 campaign and vowed that, if elected, he would enact comprehensive measures that would enable families to remain together and improve economically.
"I will work with Republicans and Democrats to build a long-term solution," Romney said in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to scattered applause from the audience. "I will prioritize efforts that strengthen legal immigration and make it more transparent and easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it."
Romney's much-anticipated address to the annual conference held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) came at a time when President Obama's advantage with Latinos appears to be growing. In 2008 Obama won the Latino vote by more than a two-to-one margin and, after the president's announcement last week that his administration would not seek to deport up to 800,000 children of illegal immigrants in this country, his lead now seems more formidable than ever.
Romney in Florida denounced Obama's move as "a stop-gap measure" that was a political effort to win the Latino vote.
"I think you deserve better," Romney told the group. "Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive action. The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure."
While Romney avoided offering many specific details on his broader immigration approach, he said that he would take "common-sense" steps to keep immigrant families together.
"Too many families are caught in a broken system that costs them time and money and entangles them in excessive red tape," he said. "For those seeking to come to America the right way, that kind of bureaucratic nightmare has to end. And we can do this with just a few common-sense reforms. As president, I'll reallocate green cards to those seeking to keep their families under one roof. We will exempt from caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents. And we will eliminate other forms of bureaucratic red tape that keep families from coming together."
Although Romney currently trails Obama by large margins, according to recent polls of Latinos, the Republican hopeful may have reason for optimism. Even though Obama's decision to relax the deportation rules helped the president's standing with Latinos, the most important issue to the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc is not immigration, but rather the economy – and on that front, Romney may see an opening: the current unemployment rate for Latinos is 11 percent, higher than the national average of 8.2 percent.
In Las Vegas last October, a single mother of two named Ana said she would oppose Obama this year – despite having voted for him in 2008 – because her economic situation has worsened since then.
"No ha hecho nada," she said. "He hasn't done anything."
On Thursday Romney said that "Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard" by the economic downturn.
"Immigration reform is not just a moral imperative, it's also an economic necessity," Romney said. "Immigrants with advanced degrees start companies, create jobs, and they drive innovation at a very high rate. Immigrants founded or co-founded nearly half of our 50 top venture-backed companies in this country – nearly half. They are nearly 30 percent more likely to start a business. And that kind of risk-taking is something we need more than ever because new business start-ups in America are at a 30-year low. I will work with states and employers to update our temporary worker visa program so that it meets our economic needs. And if you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here – so I'd staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets an advanced degree in America. We want the best and brightest to enrich the nation through the jobs and technologies they're going to create."
Another potential boost for Romney's chances with the Hispanic community is the fact that Latino turnout this fall may not meet initially high expectations. While NALEO last year predicted that as many as 12.2 million Latinos would vote this fall, a recent projection by the William C. Velasquez Institute said the eventual number may be "no higher than 10.5 million votes cast." In recent years, the number of registered Latino voters has dropped significantly, from 11.6 million in 2008 to 10.9 million in 2010. If Latinos do not head to the polls in droves come November, that would hurt Obama, who enjoys greater support among the country's largest ethnic minority.
If Romney is to cut into Obama's advantage with Latinos, the former Massachusetts governor will have to overcome some criticism stemming from comments he made during the GOP primary. Over the course of the battle for his party's nomination earlier this year, Romney vowed to veto the DREAM Act, praised Arizona's controversial new anti-immigrant law, and touted the endorsement of controversial anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, said in an interview with ABC News in April that during the primary he found many comments "offensive" and called it the worst rhetoric he had heard "in the last 40 years." Even Latino Republicans criticized some of Romney's comments: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, said she had "no doubt Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign."
The DREAM Act, for instance, is a Democratic measure – rejected by Congress in late 2010 – that would provide a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. Romney has previously stated that he supported the military aspect of the bill, a stance he reiterated Thursday. But if anyone in the crowd was hoping for Romney to back the academic portion of the bill or offer a more specific immigration plan, they would have left disappointed.
Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund, voiced dissatisfaction with Romney's address.
"At his NALEO speech, Mitt Romney fell short," he said. "American voters want – and the Republican Party needs – visionary plans to fix the immigration system, not tweaks around the margin where the only path to legal status for grandmothers is to enlist in the military. For the leader of the Republican Party to ignore the obstructions of his colleagues in the Senate to pass the DREAM Act in 2010 is revisionist history."
In the wake of Romney's speech today, an Obama campaign spokesperson hit out at Romney's comments during the primary on the DREAM Act.
"Today Mitt Romney told the largest national gathering of Hispanic elected officials, 'When I make a promise to you, I will keep it.' But in front of an audience of Republican primary voters, he called the DREAM Act 'a handout' and promised to veto it," said Gabriela Domenzain, the director of Hispanic Press for the Obama campaign. "Now after seven days of refusing to say whether or not he'd repeal the Obama administration's immigration action that prevents young people who were brought here through no fault of their own as children from being deported, we should take him at his word that he will veto the DREAM Act as president."
On Friday Obama will speak to the group, where he is expected to encounter a friendlier crowd than Romney did, but the moment of truth for both candidates will not come until November.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.