WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told Hispanic voters on Monday he would keep fighting to make the U.S. immigration system fairer and blamed Republicans for the impasse that has kept him from achieving reforms he promised.
Addressing the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the United States, the Democratic president said he and his party were committed to doing more to help aspiring Americans and their children.
"I will keep up this fight," he said, telling the cheering crowd he understood the "real pain and heartbreak" caused by deportations and the problems undocumented workers face.
"We have a system that separates families, and punishes innocent young people for their parents' actions by denying them the chance to earn an education or contribute to our economy or serve in our military," he said.
Immigration reform will be a key issue in the 2012 election for Hispanics, the largest and fastest-growing U.S. minority group. They backed Obama with a two-to-one margin in 2008 but have been disappointed by a lack of action by his White House.
With Republicans largely opposed to any amnesty or effort to make immigration easier and favoring tougher border controls and sanctions on employers, Obama tried to convince Hispanics he was still their best bet.
"The Democrats and your president are with you. Don't get confused about that. Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws," he said.
Obama promised to have an immigration bill in Congress within his first year in office, but that did not materialize as he turned his attention to healthcare reform, an economic stimulus package and other issues.
In another disappointment, he failed last year to secure the Dream Act, which would have given a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Some students who attended Monday's speech said they were unhappy that Obama sought to gloss over his lack of action on immigration reform, citing U.S. immigration and customs data that 1 million immigrants have been deported since he entered the White House.
"We are outraged at his trying to promote his election among Latinos while continuing to deport us at a time when there is no legislative solution to the immigration crisis," Felipe Matos, a student and advocate from Florida, said in a statement on behalf of the group Presente.org.
The Hispanic community was hard hit by the recession, with a jobless rate that remains above the national average. Obama voiced support for a recovery plan to have construction workers upgrade U.S. roads and airports and suggested an immigration overhaul that also affects rules for students and entrepreneurs may help spur economic recovery.
"One in six new small business owners are immigrants. These are job creators who came here to seek opportunity and now seek to share opportunity," he said.
Responding to Obama's remarks, Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith said any offer of amnesty to the undocumented would "further bury us in debt" by making illegal immigrants eligible for health, education and other benefits.
"Amnesty would prevent many Americans from getting jobs since millions of illegal immigrants will become eligible to work legally in the United States," said Smith, who chairs the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee. "The president should enforce immigration laws, not give those who have broken them a free pass."
Editing by Todd Eastham