Romney Tries To Mend Fences With Latinos

After a primary season of claiming the toughest stance against illegal immigration, Mitt Romney is trying to mend fences with the Latino community on Wednesday with a speech at a business group in Washington, D.C.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. After several days off the campaign trail, Mitt Romney was back today, speaking just a block from the White House he hopes to occupy in January.

Romney appeared before the Annual Economic Summit of the Latino Coalition. That's a nationwide federation of Hispanic small business owners. The event gave Romney a chance to build support among Latinos who widely prefer President Obama and whose votes could be decisive this fall.

NPR's David Welna was at the event and sent this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As a couple of hundred Latino business people wait for Mitt Romney to arrive for his speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Ecuadorian-born Carlos Salas(ph) chats with friends about this year's presidential race. Salas, who's in the hotel and resort business, says he likes President Obama, but knows very little about Mitt Romney.

CHARLES SALAS: I want to hear that he's going to help support the Latino community and just be more involved, not just show up to events like this for votes, but just be more involved in the future, you know.

WELNA: That uncertainty about Romney is shared by Mary Sirvent of Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. After leaving her native Venezuela 10 years ago, Sirvent will be voting this fall for the first time.

MARY SIRVENT: You know, in the resource process to see what is my final decision.

WELNA: Could you vote for Romney, do you think?

SIRVENT: I don't know.

HECTOR BARRETO: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in giving a warm Latino Coalition welcome to Governor Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WELNA: The welcome comes from Hector Barreto, the Latino Coalition chairman who headed the Small Business Administration under George W. Bush. As Romney steps up to read his speech from teleprompters, he makes no attempt to greet the crowd in Spanish. In fact, this man whose own father was born in Mexico barely acknowledges the ethnic origin of most of the people in the room. Instead, Romney sticks to his theme of this week, what he calls a national education emergency.

MITT ROMNEY: Here we are in the most prosperous nation on Earth, but millions of our kids are getting a third world education and America's minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era and it's the greatest challenge of our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WELNA: Romney waits until the end of his speech to make an election year plea.

ROMNEY: This could be more than our hope. It can be our future. It can begin this November in the choice you make, so I'm asking for your help. I need you guys to go out and get people across the community, to tell them how important this issue is.

WELNA: Listening in the crowd is Republican consultant, Mary Cruz McGowan(ph). Romney's message, she says, is good, but she adds that he needs to change his tone.

MARY CRUZ MCGOWAN: He has to connect with the Latino community at their level. He has to really understand not only - it goes beyond translation. It's actually knowing the culture and that's what he needs to do and he's going to do that with the help of many Hispanics like myself and others. There are many that support him.

WELNA: But Romney's past stands on immigration-related issues have alienated other Latinos. On the sidewalk outside the event, an undocumented college student, who gives her name only as Lucy(ph) and whose parents brought her from Peru at age 10, notes that Romney said nothing in his education speech about helping people like her achieve legal status through the DREAM Act.

LUCY: I'm a Latina. You're asking for Latinos' help. Definitely not getting it with students. You know, there are citizens that are Latino that are not going to vote for a candidate like that if he's not supporting dreams of ours.

WELNA: GOP consultant Ana Navarro says it's an issue Romney will have to deal with.

ANA NAVARRO: He is going to have to talk about the DREAM Act. He is going to have to talk about immigration. He has talked about it already during the primary and he's going to have to talk about it in a broader sense come the general. It's certainly an issue that's not going to go away.

WELNA: But one Romney chose not to deal with today. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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