ORLANDO, Fla. - No longer a backburner issue, immigration is roiling the presidential contest as President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney seek to court the nation's swelling Hispanic population. The outcome could influence political battle lines and shape American politics for generations.
By week's end, both candidates will address the same Latino political convention in Florida, showcasing contrasting political ideologies at a pivotal time. The Supreme Court is about to render judgment on a get-tough Arizona law, and just last week the Democratic president announced plans to ease deportation rules for some children of illegal immigrants.
With Election Day less than five months away, Hispanic voters are energized and paying close attention, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which hosts this week's convention.
"There's a lot at stake. We're talking about a significant share of the American electorate that could well decide this election," Vargas said. "It's only now that both candidates are turning their attention to the Latino vote."
Indeed, both sides are crafting aggressive strategies to appeal to a demographic that is by no means monolithic but has supported Democrats in recent elections. Some Republicans fear - and Democrats hope - that Obama could capitalize on this moment to help solidify Hispanic voters as predominantly Democratic this fall and for years to come, much as President Lyndon Johnson hardened the black vote for Democrats as he pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The stakes are high not only for states with larger Hispanic populations such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, but for a growing number of other battlegrounds - Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, among them - where even a modest shift among Latino voters could be significant. The United States' Latino population surged from about 35 million in 2000 to 50 million in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
As the presidential candidates head to the Florida convention, Obama is riding a wave of Latino enthusiasm over his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work. Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants can avoid deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or served in the military.
The new policy could help anywhere from 800,000 young immigrants - the administration's estimate - to the Pew Hispanic Center's estimate of 1.4 million.
The move was politically timely, in the heat of the campaign and with Obama needing to energize a key part of his base of supporters - many of whom had grown disenchanted over the past three years.
While the direct beneficiaries of the directive can't vote for Obama, his action has widespread support among American Latinos.
In fact, Obama has long enjoyed support among Hispanics - he won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008.