President Barack Obama said on Thursday at a Univision News forum that he failed to pass immigration reform as promised, blaming a tough economic situation that put it lower on the priority list and a Republican Party that was unwilling to participate.
"When we talked about immigration reform in the first year, that was before the economy was on the verge of collapse," he said at University of Miami. "Lehman Brothers had collapsed, the stock market was collapsing. So my first priority was making sure we didn't fall into a depression."
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who co-anchored the forum with Maria Elena Salinas, is an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, which Obama also has consistently supported. But the president didn't get off easily on his immigration record, which includes record deportation rates and a failed Dream Act legislative push.
By the end of the program, Obama had been hammered into submission on his immigration reform promise. Asked what he considers his biggest failure, he turned to Ramos. "Jorge, as you remind me, my biggest failure so far is we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done yet," he said to laughter from the audience, adding it wasn't for lack of trying.
In his current term, he blamed the failure on Republicans in Congress, who he said he invited to partner with him on immigration reform.
He singled out Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his 2008 opponent. McCain was part of a 2007 effort to pass immigration reform, but voted in 2010 against the Dream Act, legislation to help undocumented young people who entered the United States as children.
"What I confess I did not expect, and so I'm happy to take responsibility for being naive here, is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform -- my opponent in 2008, who had been a champion of it and who attended these meeting -- suddenly would walk away," he said. "That's what I did not anticipate."
Ramos wasn't satisfied with his answers.
"I don't want it to get lost in translation," Ramos said, switching briefly into English in an otherwise Spanish-language interview. "You promised. And a promise is a promise. With all due respect, you didn't keep that promise."
Obama replied that he takes responsibility for that failure, but denied he made such a promise -- a claim he also made recently to Spanish news agency Agencia Efe.
"I didn't make a promise that I would get everything done 100 percent when I was elected as president," Obama said "What I promised was that I would work every single day, as hard as I can, to make sure that everyone in this country, regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they come from, that they would have a fair shot at the American dream. That promise I've kept."
The hosts also pressed Obama on his deportation record, which has included removing more people from the country per year than any other administration. He said the action he took to halt deportation of some undocumented people couldn't be applied more broadly to non-criminal immigrants, but that he has instructed the Department of Homeland Security to focus its effort on those who have committed crimes or are repeat immigration offenders.
Obama also took the opportunity to draw a distinction between himself and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the issue of immigration. Although Romney has attempted to soften his tone on the issue, including in a similar meeting with Univision on Wednesday, his message has been muddled by a series of statements he made during the Republican primary -- something the Obama campaign has no intention of allowing voters to forget.
"The candidate sitting here with you today is committed to comprehensive immigration reform, is committed to the Dream Act, has taken administrative action to prevent young people from being deported," Obama said. "That stands in contrast with the other candidate, who has said he would veto the Dream Act, he is uncertain about what his plan for immigration reform would be, and who considers the Arizona law a model for the nation and has suggested that the main solution for immigration is self-deportation."
Obama has been accused of using immigration for politics, particularly after he announced his deferred action policy so close to the election. He dismissed that idea.
"I was winning the Latino vote before we took that action," he said.