WASHINGTON -- Whenever President Barack Obama has sought to turn up pressure on Republicans on issues important to Latinos, he has found reliable partners in Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo.
Last Thursday, Obama came calling again — but this time his partners became adversaries.
Obama appeared at a town hall-style event at Washington’s Newseum to encourage the Latino community to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. But the hosts, Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo and Enrique Acevedo of Univision, turned their sights on another issue: immigration.
“Your reputation has been tarnished among Latinos over deportations,” Acevedo said, referring to the administration’s removal of almost 2 million undocumented immigrants. “How can you ask the Latino community to trust you?”
“I would challenge the premise,” Obama shot back testily, sitting on stage before a live audience of 150. Citing his work on immigration reform, affordable housing and healthcare, the president added: “I think the community would understand that I’ve got their back and I’m fighting for them.”
The sharp exchange — one of several contentious moments at Thursday’s event — illustrated how far some Latinos have drifted from Obama since the heady days after his November 2012 reelection, when 71 percent of Hispanic voters supported the president over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
That huge margin among one of the nation’s fastest-growing voting blocs marked what many immigration advocates believed would be a seminal moment: Obama — who had focused on healthcare in the first term — was suddenly championing comprehensive immigration reform, while Republicans were pledging to find ways to expand their appeal to Latinos and other minority groups.
Yet 16 months later, immigration legislation has stalled in the Republican-led House, producing a rising sense of frustration in the Latino community that Obama has not done more to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants. He used his executive authority in 2012 to stop deportations of young immigrants brought to the United States as children, but he has balked at expanding the order.
On Friday, when Obama visited Miami, pro-immigrant activists appeared in full force, demanding that the president “use his executive authority to stop deporting our families.”
“President Obama should know that wherever he goes around the country, our families will be there and we will not stop until he uses his pen for administrative relief to our families,” said the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s Jose Machado, who was forced into foster care after his mother was deported back to Nicaragua.
Last week, two top White House allies on immigration — Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., co-author of a Senate-approved immigration plan — labeled Obama the “deporter-in-chief,” demanding that he do more to provide relief to families whose relatives have been removed from the country.
At the Newseum, the hosts pressed Obama several times for assurances that personal information from people who signed up for insurance on federal exchanges would not be sent to immigration enforcement offices to go after undocumented family members.
In an interview, Murguia said that while her organization holds Republicans accountable for not supporting reform legislation, “we don’t believe that the two are mutually exclusive.”
“We are simply pointing out that while [Obama] does have the community’s back on comprehensive immigration reform, he needs to have our back on the unnecessary deportations,” she said.
Asked about such criticism, Obama argued, as he has before, that he is powerless under federal law to further halt deportations and placed the onus on congressional Republicans to support a legislative overhaul of border-control laws.
“I am the champion-in-chief of comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama insisted. “But until Congress passes new laws, I am constrained in what I’m able to do.”
While some legal analysts have said Obama could unilaterally suspend a portion of the deportations, White House officials say such a move could backfire by lending credence to Republican claims that he could not be trusted to enforce border laws that are part of any immigration reforms.
After the event, Obama’s Twitter account posted a message to its 42 million followers reciting the “champion-in-chief” line and including the hashtag #ActOnReform. But the sentiment was met with derision by some influential immigrant-rights groups.
Obama “announced to the world that the White House is once again on the defensive about his deportation policy. But no public relations campaign can cover up the pain of our families,” Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, said in a statement. “The White House excuses are stale, played out and have no legal standing.”
In a conference call with reporters, Rosi Carrasco, a Chicago-based activist, said Obama’s “rhetoric does not match reality. Reality is the exercise of discretion. The president is doing nothing.”
White House aides say they remain confident of strong support for the president among Latinos, and Republicans have done little to woo them. Since the Senate approved a bipartisan immigration bill last year, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not brought immigration legislation to the floor for a vote.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month found that 59 percent of Hispanics approve of Obama’s job performance while 37 percent disapprove. That’s better than Obama’s 43 percent approval, based on Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls, among the public at large.
Gallup polling shows bigger problems for Obama, who suffered a 19-point drop in approval among Hispanics over the past year, from 73 percent to 54 percent. That’s a far steeper drop than a 7 percent decline in Gallup among the general public.
On the president’s healthcare law, Latinos have generally been more positive since its passage than the general public. Obama’s pitch Thursday was aimed encouraging young, uninsured Latinos to enroll in a health plan, which needs a broad swath of consumers to succeed.
Still, the president was clearly on the defensive at the Newseum.
“When you’re the president of the United States, someone’s always frustrated you haven’t done something or not done it fast enough,” Obama said. “I understand that. It’s part of the job.”
But, he continued, “the main point I have right now is that you don’t punish me for not signing up for healthcare. You’re punishing yourself and your family.”
Washington Post staff writer Scott Clement and Miami Herald editor Sergio R. Bustos contributed to this report.