Obama has used presidential authority twice since 2011 to make changes to immigration enforcement, including last week's announcement that many young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children would be exempted for deportation and granted work permits good for two years.
The president's re-election campaign blasted Romney for ignoring his previously stated opposition to the DREAM Act, a measure that would have allowed some children of illegal immigrants to stay in the country legally.
"In front of an audience of Republican primary voters, he called the DREAM Act a 'handout' and promised to veto it," said Obama spokesman Lis Smith.
It was clear that Romney was on unfriendly turf as he addressed several hundred Hispanic leaders in a Disney World ballroom, particularly when the Republican candidate went after the president's health care overhaul.
"If jobs are your priority, you've got to get rid of ObamaCare," Romney said, offering a line that typically prompts cheers at his rallies. But among the Hispanic crowd Thursday, only a handful applauded. At least one person booed.
Obama is riding a wave of Latino enthusiasm over his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work. Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants can avoid deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, and graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or served in the military.
The new policy could help anywhere from 800,000 young immigrants, the administration's estimate, to 1.4 million, the Pew Hispanic Center's estimate.
Romney seized on the temporary status of Obama's plan as his prime criticism. The Republican also vowed to offer illegal immigrants who serve in the military "a path to legal status" — which the campaign says could ultimately allow for full citizenship.
But Romney's campaign could not immediately detail how many immigrants might be affected by his policies. Nor could they detail which would require legislative action.
Romney highlighted what he calls the president's "broken promises" to deliver comprehensive immigration reform during his first term.
"Despite his promises, President Obama has failed to address immigration reform," 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. Nothing. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote."
Both sides are crafting aggressive strategies to appeal to a demographic that is by no means monolithic but has supported Democrats in recent elections. Some Republicans fear — and Democrats hope — that Obama could capitalize on this moment to help solidify Hispanic voters as predominantly Democratic this fall and for years to come, much as President Lyndon Johnson hardened the black vote for Democrats as he pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As is typical, Romney also focused on the economy. The former Massachusetts governor argued that his economic credentials would benefit all people who have struggled under Obama's leadership in recent years — women, younger voters and Hispanics among them.
In his speech, Romney said that Obama is taking the Hispanic vote for granted.
"I've come here today with a very simple message: You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected, and your voice is more important now than ever before," he said.
Oscar Garza, a Democrat from the border town of Mission, Texas, said he still needs to learn more about Romney's policies, but that he's been frustrated with Obama.
He said that Romney's vice presidential selection could be a game changer for Hispanics.
"A Marco Rubio would potentially swing my vote," he said.
AP's Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.
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