MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Immigration is, of course, an issue of concern to all Americans, but it's of special concern to Latinos. As David Welna just reported, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials - or NALEO - is holding its annual convention in Orlando. Mitt Romney will speak to the group tomorrow, about his views on immigration policy. And the other headlining speakers? President Obama, Jeb Bush, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Sen. Marco Rubio are all likely to address the issue.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What do the Latino officials want to hear? Well, we're joined by Arturo Vargas, who is the executive director of NALEO. Hi, welcome to the program.
ARTURO VARGAS: Hello.
SIEGEL: And first, is the policy that President Obama announced last week about deportations, does that effectively counter concerns in your group about his policy of deportations of people said to be criminals?
VARGAS: I don't think the announcement from the president really satisfies the entire concerns that the NALEO members gathered here have about a broken immigration system. There certainly is concern about the deportation policy and there are also concerns about the inability of Congress to pass the DREAM Act as it was originally proposed.
What the president has announced and what the Department of Homeland Security indicates it will implement is simply a temporary action to provide young people who were brought here through no fault of their own an opportunity to be here for a period of two years without being deported. And that is at least a breathing room for these young people.
SIEGEL: A breathing room for the young people or a breathing room for Washington to come up with a more permanent policy on those people?
VARGAS: Well, it certainly is breathing room for the young people because this is just a life preserver that's been tossed in a sea of real misery for many young people. And we're hoping that the Congress and the administration can move forward on immigration policy that's designed to fix the immigration system and to really allow this country to develop the full human potential of all its assets.
SIEGEL: One premise of the Romney campaign, to date at least, has been that Hispanic voters, like all voters, want to see the economy creating more jobs. The implication is, if he's persuasive on that issue, that trumps more parochial issues. Is he right?
VARGAS: Well, in fact, poll after poll has indicated that the economy is, in fact, the number one issue on the mind of Latino voters today. And that's because the Great Recession has, in fact, affected Latino families more so than any other population group.
SIEGEL: Well, we just heard, though, in David Welna's story, we heard the sound of Mitt Romney saying that he would veto the DREAM Act. That was a few months ago. Does he have to retract that, do you think? Is a retraction the ticket of admission into the sentiments of Latino voters in America?
VARGAS: Well, I think what is most important is that we're entering a new phase in the campaign. I think the individuals who will be here for the NALEO conference who are elected and appointed officials themselves understand the dynamics of a primary campaign where candidates appeal to the extreme of their parties. Now, we've entered a new phase. We're now going towards November and the general election and we hope that both candidates are going to be moving to the center where, in fact, the Latino electorate finds itself.
SIEGEL: But Mitt Romney, during the primary campaign, went after Texas Governor Rick Perry very, very hard for in-state tuition given to illegal aliens in Texas. You're saying all of that could be dismissed as primary rhetoric if he says something better now?
VARGAS: Well, I think what he has to say, and what he will have to say to us tomorrow, will be an indication of how he intends to campaign between now and November. We have seen example after example of candidates who, during the primary season, do one thing and then in the general election do another. So now is the time to find out what kind of a candidate both Governor Romney and President Obama will be as we enter this new phase towards November.
SIEGEL: Some would say for President Obama to move to the middle would be for him to take a harder line than he's just announced last week.
VARGAS: Well, in fact, you know, given the deportation policy, I don't think moving to the middle would necessarily mean continuing that policy itself. I think what we're looking for are candidates who are going to be addressing the issues that are top of mind of Latino voters, certainly the economy being at the very top, public education being extremely important given the youthfulness of the Latino community and how many children are being affected by yet the low quality of education in our public schools.
SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Vargas, thank you very much for talking with us.
VARGAS: Anytime. Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: That's Arturo Vargas, who is the executive director of NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The group is holding its convention this week in Orlando, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.