WASHINGTON – President Obama carried his healthcare reform message directly to Latinos on Thursday, urging the members of that vast community to obtain coverage under the Affordable Care Act before the approaching March 31 deadline.

Speaking at a forum conducted at the Newseum in downtown Washington and broadcast over several Spanish-language media outlets, the president offered assurance to Latinos concerned that utilizing the newly established insurance exchanges could somehow lead to the deportation of undocumented relatives, asserting “I’ve got their back.”

“The main point that I have for everybody watching right now is, you don’t punish me by not signing up for healthcare,” Obama said. “You’re punishing yourself or your family if in fact there’s affordable healthcare to be had.”

Told about one individual in particular, a mother who expressed alarm that she could face deportation if she enrolled her children, who happen to be citizens with the health exchange, the president said she “should not be fearful.”

“There’s no sharing of the data from the healthcare plan into immigration services,” Obama said. “You should feel confident that if somebody in your family is eligible, you should sign them up.”

Obama carried his message to the Latino community at a crucial time for the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” A disastrous rollout of the program last October left enrollment lagging. If an insufficient number of individuals sign up for the program, financial problems could ensue, rendering the insurance pool unsustainable.

Under the law, individuals are required to obtain government approved health insurance policies to offset potential medical costs. Failure to do so could lead to a fine. To offset costs, the federal government, 15 states and the District of Columbia have established exchanges so consumers can pick-and-choose their policies. In some instances the government is providing subsidies to ease the cost burden.

The Obama administration has been targeting Latinos, traditionally one of the president’s most loyal constituencies and one that finds itself in need of healthcare coverage. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Latinos are uninsured at a much higher rate than the U.S. population overall. About 16 percent of all nonelderly U.S. citizens and others lawfully residing are uninsured. Among Latinos, the total reaches 24 percent.

In all, about 10.2 million Latinos are eligible for the exchanges. Of that number 8.1 million – 80 percent – are thought to qualify either for tax credits to purchase coverage in the Health Insurance Marketplace, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But there has been a reluctance on the part of the community. Non-documented individuals in the country illegally are not eligible for Obamacare and Latinos already are wary about the large number of individuals who have either been deported or face deportation.

Obama sought to assure Latinos that signing on to Obamacare won’t bring immigration officials to the door looking for associates. But several people expressed suspicion nonetheless and the president was pressed several times about the number of deportations. Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino group, recently referred to Obama as the “deporter-in-chief.”

The president told the audience that he has ordered immigration authorities to focus their efforts in deporting those who have criminal records or a history of gang activity. Otherwise there’s little he can do about the situation without congressional action to clarify the situation.

“Until Congress passes a new law, I am constrained as to what I can do,” Obama said.