LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – At a conference for Latino elected and appointed officials Friday, Barack Obama cast himself as the best choice for Hispanics in everything from the economy to immigration.
Obama drew a contrast between himself and his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney -- portraying himself as someone who could better relate to Latinos and who would help them and their children achieve a better qualify of life. He said Romney's approach would be "top-down economics" favoring only the rich.
"These are all our kids," Obama declared as the nation's first black president lobbied for support in strikingly personal terms.
"I see myself," Obama said about meeting young people of different backgrounds
"Who knows what they might achieve if we just give them a chance?" the president asked. "That's what I'm fighting for. That's what I stand for."
Obama spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, near Orlando, in his first speech to a Hispanic group since he decreed that many young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children would be exempted from deportation and granted work permits valid for two years.
He defended that decision as "the right thing to do" while conceding it was only a temporary patch. Romney attacked it as a "stopgap measure" in his own speech to the association one day earlier as both men, locked in a tight election battle, courted voters from the Hispanic population growing in size and influence.
There are an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million such undocumented immigrants in the United States who could benefit.
Some 11 million undocumented immigrants are believed to be in the United States -- roughly half entered lawfully, on visas, but then overstayed them.
Obama challenged Republicans in Congress to join him finally on a big, broad fix of the U.S. immigration laws.
"To those who are saying Congress should be the one to fix this, absolutely," Obama said. "For those who say we should do this in a bipartisan fashion, absolutely. My door has been open for three and a half years. They know where to find me."
Hispanic voters are a vital constituency in states that could swing the election, from Florida to Nevada to Virginia.
The president said the nation needs ideas and policies that build up the middle class and "our current immigration system doesn't reflect those values."
The system punishes immigrants who play by the rules and drives away entrepreneurs who can get an education in America but cannot stay here legally, he added.
Obama has faced heat from his own Hispanic supporters for not having fulfilled a pledge to deliver a comprehensive immigration overhaul deal. Obama has, in turn, pointed blame at Republicans for blocking him.
He said anew on Friday that as long as he is president "he will not give up the fight" on a broad fix.
And he made another pitch for legislation called the DREAM Act that would create a path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants.
Obama said Romney has promised to veto such a bill and "we should take him at his word."
Obama's immigration initiative, announced less than five months before the November elections, delighted many in the Latino community and drew renewed attention to the key Hispanic voting bloc and its potential for affecting the presidential election with its turnout and energy.
Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and aides believe he could do even better this time.
Romney on Thursday backed off the tough anti-undocumented immigrant rhetoric of the Republican primaries and vowed to address illegal immigration "in a civil but resolute manner."
He outlined plans to overhaul the green card system for immigrants with families and end immigration caps for their spouses and minor children.
But he was vague about how he would treat immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents and refused to say whether he would reverse Obama's policy.
On Friday, the Obama campaign released a 110-second online video with a montage of news clips depicting Romney sidestepping questions on whether he would repeal Obama's policy if elected. "Why won't Mitt Romney give a straight answer?" the video asks.
Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform that would give a pathway to legalization to undocumented immigrants praised Obama's address.
“In his NALEO speech, the president offered a vision for our immigration system that upholds the United States as a nation of laws as well as a nation of immigrants," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund. "This vision serves young and old alike, the skilled engineer and the skilled farm worker."
"Much work lies ahead. Members of both parties in Congress must get beyond politics and pass immigration reform that propels our economy forward, keeps our communities safe and serves the interests of every American family."
Soon following Obama's speech, Romney's campaign sent out emails critical of the President's policies.
“The economic vibrancy of our nation’s Hispanic community has been crushed by the burdensome regulations, uncompetitive tax code, and anti-business policies promulgated by the Obama Administration over the past three and a half years," said a statement that the Romney campaign sent out on behalf of Hector Barreto, the chairman of the board of The Latino Coalition. "We can no longer afford to watch our children’s dreams slip away because of the failed economic agenda of this President."
"Governor Romney is dedicated to stopping President Obama’s attack on free enterprise and removing bureaucratic red tape and barriers to job creation for small businesses.”
This story contains material by The Associated Press.