Obama Pressed On Slow Changes To Immigration Law

President Obama says he hasn't given up on overhauling immigration law despite opposition from Republicans in Congress. Obama faced some tough questions during a forum on Univision including what would be different if he won four more years in the White House.

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When Mitt Romney appeared on Spanish-language TV this week, he faced a challenge. He won the Republican nomination in part by hammering opponents if they favored opportunities for illegal immigrants.

INSKEEP: When President Obama took his turn at Univision, he faced his own challenge. The president was asked why he hasn't solved the problem of so many people here without documents, and why his administration has sent so many home.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama faced some tough questions during the Univision forum - about why he'd failed to overhaul immigration law during his first term in office, and what would be different if he won four more years in the White House.

Mr. Obama acknowledged the lack of progress on immigration reform is a major failing on his part, but not, he says, for lack of trying. He blames Senate Republicans for blocking even piecemeal efforts to patch the system.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVISION BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we could not get was a single Republican, including the 20 who previously voted for comprehensive immigration reform to step up and say we will work with you to make this happen.

HORSLEY: The president was also grilled about the record number of illegal immigrants who were deported on his watch - nearly 400,000 last year. Mr. Obama says he's tried to focus enforcement resources on undocumented immigrants who commit other crimes but, he insists, he can't just turn a blind eye when immigration laws are broken.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVISION BROADCAST)

OBAMA: We will continue to make sure that how we enforce is done as fairly and justly as possible. But until we have a law in place that provides a pathway for legalization and/or citizenship for the folks in question, we're going to be - continue to be bound by the law, and that's a challenge.

HORSLEY: The record pace of deportations, along with the lack of movement on immigration reform, threatened to undermine the strong support Mr. Obama received from Latino voters four years ago.

Laura Richardson of Colorado says she was down on Mr. Obama. Not enough to vote Mitt Romney - who's taken a particularly hard line on immigration - but maybe enough to sit this election out.

LAURA RICHARDSON: I'm going to be honest. I was a little disappointed because I have a family that is undocumented. But my daughter and my brother convinced me that President Obama is the better option we have right now. They have hope.

HORSLEY: Richardson is now aggressively campaigning for Mr. Obama. She was encouraged by his decision this summer to temporarily stop deporting the so-called Dream Act kids who were brought to this country as children.

RICHARDSON: I really like what he did for those people. As a mother, I put myself in their position, and I'm sure that they're very happy right now.

HORSLEY: Romney has criticized that particular move as a politically-motivated stopgap.

The president told Univision one of the lessons he's learned in the last four years - from battles over the payroll tax cut and student loan rates, among others - is that pressure from the public can sometimes move even the most reluctant lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVISION BROADCAST)

OBAMA: You can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected. And that's how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out.

HORSLEY: And Mr. Obama adds, if a big turnout by Latino voters costs Republicans at the polls this fall, they might change their thinking on immigration, if only because it's in their own political interest.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Miami.

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