WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama promised a Hispanic group Monday that he'd continue to push for a sweeping immigration overhaul even as he acknowledged frustration that he's failed to deliver on his promises.
Speaking before the National Council of La Raza, Obama noted that he'd pledged during his 2008 campaign to "work tirelessly to fix our broken immigration system and make the Dream Act a reality" so that the undocumented children of illegal immigrants could stay in the U.S. and study.
But he blamed Republicans and the Washington political climate — where "compromise is becoming a dirty word" — for blocking the legislation last December.
"Feel free to keep the heat on me and keep the heat on Democrats, but here's the only thing you should know: The Democrats and your president are with you," he said. "Don't get confused about that.
"Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws."
The speech came as Republicans see an opening to court Hispanics, who represent the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. electorate. An independent Republican group run by Karl Rove began running Spanish-language ads last week in Hispanic markets that bash Obama for the anemic economy.
La Raza President Janet Murguia said she was "extremely disappointed" that none of the four GOP presidential hopefuls her group had asked to address the council accepted the invitation.
"To me that sends a signal that we are not a priority," she said after Obama's speech.
Still, she and conference attendees acknowledged frustration with the administration, which is deporting a record number of illegal immigrants.
"It's a growing dilema for many in the Latino community and many Latino voters," she said. "They're not satisfied that the president has kept his promise, and we're certainly not satified with the actions we've been seeing by the Republicans."
Obama asked for help in pushing immigration revisions, but he rejected calls from some immigration groups that he stop some deportations by going around Congress and issuing an executive order.
"I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books," he told the lunch crowd at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel. "I know very well the real pain and heartbreak that deportations cause. ... I promise you, we are responding to your concerns and working every day to make sure we are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way."
Attendees — who included a group of student activists called "the Dreamers," because they'd be eligible for the Dream Act if it were law — weren't mollified. They chanted a modified version of Obama's campaign slogan "Yes, you can" as he said that some groups want him to "change the laws on my own."
"Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting, and not just on immigration reform," he said, a reference to the weeks he's spent tangling with Congress over raising the nation's debt ceiling. "But that's not how our system works. I need a dance partner here and the floor is empty."
He charged that Republicans who once backed the Dream Act had "walked away."
The words failed to move Jose Torres, 23, who volunteered on Obama's 2008 campaign but says the administration and Democrats haven't done enough to help Dream Act-eligible students stay in the country. He noted that the measure came up five votes short in the Senate — and that 5 Democrats had voted against it.
"There's a lot of disappointed young people," said Torres, who lives in Durham, N.C., and can recite from memory nearly a half-dozen teenagers who face deportation. "We don't need to hear promises of change, because we've heard it before."
Sisters Teresa Ramirez, 55, and Mary Blanco, 60, of Phoenix said they thought that most Hispanics would vote with their pocketbooks. They gave Obama generally good grades for his stewardship of the economy, even though Ramirez is an independent voter who went with Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008.
"I think he's doing his best," Ramirez said of the president. "I don't think anyone realized the depth of the problems, and he didn't create it, he walked into it."
The jobless rate for Hispanics is higher than the national average, and Obama reiterated his belief that sweeping immigration restructuring would benefit the economy. He noted that he called two months ago for an immigration overhaul that "holds true to our values and our heritage. And meets our economic and security needs. And I argued this wasn't just the moral thing to do, it was an economic imperative. "
He said that immigrants had founded one in four high-tech startups in America in recent years, and that one in six new small-business owners were immigrants.
"This country has always been made stronger by our immigrants," the president said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY