MIAMI — US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will openly vie for the key Hispanic vote when they address a major Latino conference in Florida this week.
In a historic move, Obama last week suspended the deportations of young illegal immigrants brought to the United States before the age of 16, who are currently under 30.
The scheme, which applies to people are in school or have graduated from high school, or have served in the military and have not been convicted of a felony, has been largely welcomed by the Latino community.
But Romney has dismissed the move as being driven by politics, although he has dodged questions about whether he would repeal it.
"We have a lot of expectations about how Romney and Obama will address this conference regarding the Latino community. What they say will have a major impact on voters," said Sylvia Garcia, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
NALEO is hosting the Orlando conference which will be addressed by Romney on Thursday and Obama on Friday -- exactly a week after his move to try to bring some of the nation's millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows.
Other top officials to speak include Governor Rick Scott, former governor Jeb Bush, Cuban-born Senator Marco Rubio, who is being widely touted as a possible vice-presidential pick by Romney and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
Hispanic voters are a key voting bloc and voted in droves for Obama when he won the November 2008 elections.
There are 11.5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, mostly of Hispanic origin, and efforts to deal with their status have foundered over sharp political divisions.
Obama's decision unveiled on Friday will go some way to enshrining the goals of the DREAM Act, legislation backed by the White House that could lead to young illegal immigrants gaining permanent residency.
But the DREAM Act, opposed by Romney and Capitol Hill conservatives, has repeatedly failed to pass Congress and become law, leading to frustration among the Hispanic community.
Obama promised to work towards comprehensive immigration reform when he ran for office but has made little progress. Now the president is pledging to tackle the issue if he wins a second term.
"I'm very grateful that President Obama has decided, after a great amount of pressure from DREAMers, to give us administrative relief," said activist Felipe Matos, national director of the GetEqual.org campaign, which defends the rights of undocumented students.
Matos, who is of Brazilian origin, is one of the hundreds of thousands of young people who will benefit from Obama's reform.
But he warned Romney "is in trouble with Latino voters and he will continue to dig a deep hole for himself unless he decides to support President Obama's decision to stop deportation of DREAMers."
"Ninety percent of Latino voters support the DREAM Act, and he pledged to veto it. Now he doesn't seem compelled to give us a clear answer whether or not he would commence deporting DREAM Act eligible youth if he gets elected."
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month, Obama led Romney among registered Hispanic voters, 61 to 27 percent.
Romney has taken a tough stand on illegal immigrants, and at one point was proposing that those in the country illegally should voluntarily go back to their countries and join the back of the line for a visa.
Questioning the president's timing in unveiling the policy, Romney on Sunday accused Obama of political brinkmanship in relying on "stopgap measures" rather than a long-term fix.
"If he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these kids or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first three and a half years, not in his last few months," Romney told CBS.
Asked whether politics were behind Obama's decision, Romney said: "That's certainly a big part of the equation."
Administration officials have said the Obama reform could impact around 800,000 youthful illegal immigrants. The Pew Hispanic Center said up to 1.4 million children and young adults could benefit.
The Center said that 2008 Hispanics made up 7.4 percent of voters, with a record 10 million turning out to cast their ballots.
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