WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama went before a Hispanic crowd Thursday fervently promising to fight on immigration reform until the job is done, including taking executive action by the end of the year, and then imploring Latinos to "have my back."
"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," Obama said in a much anticipated speech falling in the middle of Hispanic Heritage month.
Though he delivered the speech at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual gala to a largely friendly crowd, Obama's words were intended for a larger community of Latinos and immigrants who were left deflated by his decision to postpone executive action that could relieve some immigrants from the threat of deportation.
He has taken some harsh criticism that has left some questioning whether Latinos should support Democrats in the midterms or show up at the polls altogether.
Obama said it was no longer a question of whether he'd take executive action for immigrants here illegally, but when. But he also said for any action to last and extend beyond his remaining two years in office, he needs support so it sustains and lasts.
"I'm going to need you to have my back. I'm going to need you to have my back," Obama said emphasizing the point. "... the fact of the matter is no matter how bold I go, nothing I can do will be as comprehensive and lasting as the Senate bill."
Then Obama got to the heart of what has been roiling the Latino community since he delayed executive action at the end of summer, putting it off until after elections.
"If we want that legislation to happen sooner rather than later then there is one more thing I need you to do, I've got to have you talk to your constituents and your communities and you've got to get them out to vote."
"Si se puede, si votamos. Yes we can if you vote," Obama said.
The president, sounding upbeat from the beginning, reminded attendees that other achievements of his administration that also benefit Latinos. "Sometimes we don't focus on what's happened these last six years," Obama said.
He mentioned 10 million new jobs, an economy rebounding since 2006, the reduction by half in the Latino dropout rate during his two terms as president and reform of a health care system that resulted in insurance coverage for millions.
Outside and out of earshot, immigration advocates protested. Despite high security that even kept the press confined to a roped off area in the back of the room, one of the attendees heckled the president's and interrupted his speech several times. She was identified as Blanca Hernandez, who has deferred deportation though the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. That program was put in place by Obama through executive action in 2012.
"What happened to change we can believe in?" Hernandez yelled as she was escorted out.
In his introduction of the president, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, directed his comments to the president saying, "we need big, bold, unapologetic relief."
"We need reforms, we need them now and Mr. President, we need your help," Menendez said.
Before his speech, the Republican Party spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski issued a statement criticizing Obama for "trying to refocus his party as (Democrats) approval ratings continue to plummet."
"Americans are done with the photo op speeches and empty promises and are going to elect a new Republican Senate," Kukowski said in response to an earlier speech Obama gave on the economy.
The president has been a regular at the institute's gala, speaking at it three times as president and in 2008 as a candidate.
The politics around the event contrasts sharply with last year when he was scheduled to attend. He had to cancel at the last minute because of the Republican-led government shutdown, giving Democrats far better standing with Latinos than exists now.
Many of the Latino lawmakers in Congress also have been targets of criticism for failing to put more pressure on Obama to change his mind on delaying.
But this week's CHCI conference, which began Tuesday, has been largely supportive of the president and his administration. Members of his Cabinet have promoted Obama's policies in speeches and Labor Secretary Tom Perez made opening arguments for the president Wednesday, defending his delay as making sure executive action was done right.