Obama: Backing Away From Immigration Reform Is 'Not Leadership'

Ahem, Marco Rubio.
President Barack Obama criticized GOP candidates for lack of leadership on immigration.
President Barack Obama criticized GOP candidates for lack of leadership on immigration.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama reserved his harshest criticism on immigration Thursday not for GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, but for the other Republican candidates who he said know what's right, but are bending to politics.

Obama didn't use names during his speech to a 2,000-person crowd at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala. But some of his references were obvious, particularly to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who helped draft a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 and has since tied himself in knots over whether he still supports it.

"Some of the very same Republican politicians who championed reform, some of whom sponsored these efforts, suddenly they want nothing to do with it," Obama said, with a dramatic pause. "Hmm."

"In these circumstances, I always say, 'Don't boo, vote,'" he continued. "They can't hear the boos, but they can hear your vote."

The Latino vote helped Obama win in 2012, and may do the same for the 2016 Democratic nominee. Latinos lean Democratic, and there are even more eligible voters in the next election than in the last, meaning the GOP candidate may need to attract more than 47 percent of them in order to win the presidency.

On immigration, though, most Republican candidates don't seem to be heeding the lessons of 2012, when Mitt Romney was widely condemned for calling for undocumented immigrants to self-deport.

Instead, Republicans have been eager to say they're tough on immigration, whether by calling for a border wall or decrying amnesty. Like Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said he does not support a path to citizenship, and stirred controversy for using the term "anchor babies."

"That's not leadership, turning against what's right the moment the politics of your base gets tough," Obama said. "Leadership is not fanning the flames of intolerance and then acting all surprised when the fire breaks out. Saying clearly inflammatory things and then saying, 'Well, that's not what I meant,' until you do it again, and again, and again."

Obama said the American people need to decide whether they will stand up to bigotry -- a common theme of the evening. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Chairwoman Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) told members of the crowd earlier that they must show they will organize against candidates who disrespect Latinos.

"We can't just sit on the sidelines hoping that things will get better," Sanchez said. 

For most of the conference, the top target was Trump, one of the only 2016 candidates not invited to speak because of his statements on Latinos, which include calling for mass deportation, a border wall and an end to birthright citizenship for babies born in the U.S. He also has claimed Mexico is sending rapists and other criminals into the U.S.

"We need people who will stand up to this ugly rhetoric and extreme thinking, who will say with our words and our actions, basta, enough," Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton said.

A 22-year-old undocumented immigrant activist, Juan Carlos Ramos with the advocacy group United We Dream Action, stood during Clinton's remarks to protest her for taking contributions from lobbyists for private prison companies, which operate many immigrant detention centers. It was not clear whether Clinton heard the man, and she continued speaking.

Obama was interrupted by an immigration activist at last year's CHCI gala, which took place about a month after he put off plans  for executive action on immigration until after the 2014 election.

This year, things were decidedly friendlier for the president. He promised to continue fighting for the sweeping deportation relief he announced last November, which has been blocked by courts.

"Although it is taking us longer than we hoped, I know we are on the right side of the law," Obama said. "We are going to keep fighting to prove it."

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