Obama rallies Latino officials on heels of immigration policy change

June 22, 2012: President Obama speaks at the NALEO conference in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

June 22, 2012: President Obama speaks at the NALEO conference in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.  (AP)

President Obama rallied an audience of Latino officials Friday, vowing to fight for them if elected to a second term and wielding his latest immigration policy change as a wedge between him and Republican opponent Mitt Romney. 

The president spoke in Florida to a gathering of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a day after Romney made an appeal for support to the same group. 

The president staunchly defended his administration's recent decision to stop deporting, in most cases, illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. 

"Lifting the shadow of deportation and giving them a reason to hope, that was the right thing to do," Obama told the crowd, to a round of applause. 

Attempting to draw a clear contrast between his approach to illegal immigration and Romney's, Obama went on to suggest that he was taking steps Romney never would. 

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He cited the DREAM Act -- the legislative predecessor to last Friday's DHS announcement -- and noted that Romney had vowed to veto that bill. 

"He has promised to veto the DREAM Act, and we should take him at his word," Obama said. "I believe that would be a tragic mistake." 

Obama criticized lawmakers for not passing that proposal, claiming his administration took action because Congress wouldn't. "The bill hadn't changed. The need hadn't changed. The only thing that had changed was politics," he said. 

The forum in Florida was just the latest stage where Obama and Romney have waged their budding general election battle. 

Romney, a day earlier, accused Obama of pandering to America's Latinos with the Department of Homeland Security announcement and urged the Latino community to consider an "alternative" in the November election. Obama, he said, is "taking your vote for granted." 

While Romney has opposed the DREAM Act, he has expressed interest in allowing some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to stay. 

Romney on Friday appeared to soften his tone on illegal immigration, compared against his rhetoric during the GOP primary, and he pitched a series of initiatives to fix the legal immigration system and grant a reprieve to some young illegal immigrants. He said he would, if elected president, replace Obama's order with a more permanent solution. 

Obama, though, acknowledges that the policy change announced last week is a stopgap. He again called on lawmakers Friday to work with him toward a legislative solution. 

That short-term initiative, though, revived the issue of illegal immigration - and Washington's response to it -- in the general election campaign. It stirred up debate over the DREAM Act, as well as an alternative measure that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio had been working on. 

Rubio, who addressed the NALEO conference ahead of Obama on Friday, called on both parties to come together on a long-term immigration solution. 

But the Florida senator said the response to Obama's announcement has exposed "that this issue is all about politics for some people." Rubio noted that Democrats had fiercely criticized his plan, but when Obama announced a similar policy "now it's the greatest idea in the world." 

Rubio charged that some people in power want the immigration issue to remain "unresolved" so they can use it to their political advantage.