President Barack Obama speaks at The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ Annual Conference at the Walt Disney World Resort, Friday, June 22, 2012, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Appealing to Hispanic voters, President Barack Obama on Friday defended his decision to lift the threat of deportation for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, saying it gave them an overdue “sense of hope.” He challenged Republicans in Congress to join him finally on a big, broad fix of the U.S. immigration laws.

Obama tailored his re-election message of economic fairness and opportunity to his audience of Latino officials, addressing the group one day after Republican rival Mitt Romney did the same. Hispanic voters are a vital constituency in states that could swing the election, from Florida to Nevada to Virginia.

The president said the nation needs ideas and policies that build up the middle class and “our current immigration system doesn’t reflect those values.” The system punishes immigrants who play by the rules and drives away entrepreneurs who can get an education in America but cannot stay here legally, he said.

Obama spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials near Orlando, his first speech to a Hispanic group since he decreed that many young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children would be exempted from deportation and granted work permits valid for two years

“It was the right thing to do,” Obama declared.

Romney has attacked Obama’s new plan to ease deportation rules as little more than a “stopgap measure.” The president sought to seize on that criticism from Romney and Republicans in Congress by putting the onus on them.

“For those who are saying Congress should be the one to fix this, absolutely,” Obama said. “For those who say we should do this in a bipartisan fashion, absolutely. My door’s been open for three-and-a-half years. They know where to find me.”

 

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.