His immigration overhaul stalled, President Barack Obama is enlisting an array of voices, including Latino entertainment and media stars, to help jump-start legislation and reassure crucial but restless Hispanic voters that he has not abandoned his campaign pledge to change the law.
Obama's political advisers see tremendous potential in a growing Latino electorate. But Obama, who won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, faces a disenchanted Latino community, angry over a record number of deportations and an impasse on revamping immigration laws, and fearful of tough state immigration laws such as one passed in Arizona.
On Thursday, the president invited a dozen influential Spanish-language television anchors and radio personalities as well as comely Latino actresses who have been active in Hispanic causes.
Among the high-profile Latinos was Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo, who in 2006 helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of protesters in Los Angeles and across the nation against enforcement-only immigration proposals. Others at the White House were actresses Eva Longoria and America Ferrera and television figures Don Francisco of Univision and Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo.
In a summary describing the meeting, the White House said Obama stressed his commitment to a comprehensive overhaul and pledged to intensify his efforts "to lead a civil debate on this issue in the coming weeks and months."
But immigration legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants has stalled even when Democrats controlled both chambers in 2009 and 2010. Its prospects are even more remote now that Republicans control the House.
Obama also voiced disappointment in Congress' failure to pass legislation that would have provided a path to legal status for law-abiding young people brought to the United States as children who either plan to attend college or join the military. He asked the Latino media and entertainment figures to use their influence to help "elevate the debate."
Participants said Obama was pressed to do something about the record 393,000 illegal immigrants forced to leave the country last year, but Obama indicated that without congressional action his hands were tied.
In its summary, the White House said: "The President also noted that the only way to fix what's broken about our immigration system is through legislative action in Congress, and that he cannot unilaterally change the law."
Speaking to reporters, Longoria said: "We like to blame Obama for the inaction, but he can't just disobey the law that's written."
Also attending along with Francisco and Diaz-Balart were Bárbara Bermudo, Lily Estefan, Vanessa Hauc and María Elena Salinas, all hosts or anchors of Univision or Telemundo, the primary Spanish-language channels in the United States.
The session comes just a week after Obama invited about 70 elected officials and religious, law enforcement, business, labor, and civil rights figures to help build support for a long-stalled overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
Slide in Hispanic support
The flurry of immigration activity at the White House illustrates both the desire by Obama and his advisers to show engagement on the issue and to halt any potential slide in Hispanic support.
Obama political advisers believe Latino voters could reconfigure the political landscape, shoring up support in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and North Carolina and providing a stronger foothold in states that John McCain won in 2008 but that have grown more Hispanic in recent years, such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
"We've got a lot more work to do to fix an immigration system that's broken," Obama told donors in New York City Wednesday evening.
To emphasize his point, a group of demonstrators on the motorcade route held handmade signs and chanted: "Obama. Escucha. Estamos en la lucha" — "Obama. Listen. We are in the struggle."
At the same time, Republicans have shown some success electing Latinos to high profile offices, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
But Republican pollsters concede that their party is still perceived as anti-immigrant, a perception that hurts them at the ballot box.
"Both parties at this point are losing an incredible opportunity," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum and a participant in last week's White House meeting. "You have a Democratic administration that is deporting more people than ever. And you have Republican leadership both nationally and locally, looking to replicate Arizona laws.
"So the Asian, the Latino the immigrant voter is asking the question, 'Where do I go?'".
Diaz-Balart, a Telemundo news anchor and host and brother of Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, said Thursday's meeting was encouraging because the Hispanic community had not heard from Obama since the campaign, when he targeted Latino voters with a pledge to push for an immigration overhaul.
"The silence was not golden," said Diaz-Balart.