WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to rally frustrated Latinos on Thursday with a firm promise to keep fighting for immigration reform and a renewed pledge to take executive action this year to reduce deportations of undocumented immigrants.
After enraging many Hispanic voters last month by delaying a change in immigration policies until after the November midterm elections, Obama has faced widespread condemnation from a voting bloc that helped him win the presidency in 2008 and 2012.
Latinos remain critical to Democrats’ hopes of holding onto the White House, not to mention Obama’s legacy, so the president said he would use the coming weeks to gin up support among the U.S. public for another shot at reform.
Speaking at an annual gala held by Hispanic lawmakers, Obama said he shared the group’s frustration but needed its support to make any reform last beyond his presidency, which concludes in a little more than two years.
“I know there’s deep frustration in many communities around the country right now, and I understand that frustration because I share it,” he said at the Washington gala.
“But if anybody wants to know where my heart is or whether I want to have this fight, let me put those questions to rest right now: I am not going to give up this fight until it gets done.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked bipartisan immigration legislation passed by the Senate in 2013, and the Latino community has demanded Obama deliver on a promise to use his executive authority to ease deportations of some of the more than 11 million undocumented people in the country.
Obama had promised to take that step before the end of the summer, only to delay it because of fears it could hurt Democrats running for election in conservative states in November.
The president reiterated on Thursday he would take action before the end of the year, a pledge that irritated Republicans.
“The president’s promise isn’t about making the best policy or enforcing the law -- it’s an admission that his pledge to not uphold the law in the future would be bad for his party now,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a statement.
Obama’s speech was interrupted by a heckler, who gave him a hard time for failing to take executive action on deportations. But the rest of the crowd largely embraced the president, representing another twist in a relationship that at times resembles that of a married couple repeatedly squabbling and making up.
Obama has missed the annual gala held by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus the last two years.
Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration legislation, illustrated the difficult ties Hispanic-Americans have had with Obama during the past six years.
“It’s clear that anybody that looks at this says, ‘Wow, we weren’t the priority we should have been and we weren’t the priority he promised we’d be,'” Gutierrez said in an interview before the speech, while expressing hope that Obama’s Thursday remarks would be a positive sign.
Additional reporting by Marina Lopes and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Eric Walsh