Obama puts spotlight on immigration
President asks Congress to fix broken system as elections near
WASHINGTON — In his first major speech on the issue since taking office, President Barack Obama pressed Congress on Thursday to adopt a sweeping plan to fix a “fundamentally broken” immigration system, taking on a volatile issue that has inflamed passions in a weak economy heading into the fall midterm campaign.
Obama tried to navigate between what he called the two extremes of the debate, defending his efforts to strengthen border security while promoting a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people now in the United States illegally.
The president’s decision to elevate the issue reflected more of a political strategy than a legislative one because the White House has no plan to actually push a bill this year through a Congress already consumed by other is- sues. Instead, Obama’s focus appeared intended to frame the debate for the fall elections to appeal to Hispanic voters who may be crucial in several states. It is also aimed at other voters turned off by anti-immigrant rhetoric while blaming the GOP for opposing a comprehensive overhaul.
“I’m ready to move forward, the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward, and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward,” he told an audience of lawmakers, advocates, business executives and labor lead-
Continued from A1 ers at American University in Washington. “But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem.”
Republicans fired back, arguing that the real problem is an administration that doesn’t do enough to enforce laws already on the books. Moreover, they said, with 15 million Americans now unemployed, this is the wrong time to loosen the rules on the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants currently in the work force.
“We could cut unemployment in half simply by reclaiming the jobs taken by illegal workers,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, co-chairman of the Reclaim American Jobs Caucus. “President Obama is on the wrong side of the American people on immigration. The president should support policies that help citizens and legal immigrants find the jobs they need and deserve, rather than fail to enforce immigration laws.”
Gov. Rick Perry said that Texans are fed up with rhetoric and want to see more per- sonnel, technology and fencing along the Rio Grande. “Secure the border, Mr. President, then we’ll have a conversation about immigration reform,” Perry said in Austin.
But Obama dismissed the focus on a “border security first” approach, saying the system is too big to be fixed “only with fences and border patrols.” He advocated a comprehensive approach that would call on the government, businesses and illegal immigrants themselves to live up to their responsibilities within the law.
As a candidate, Obama had promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year in office.
“Eighteen months later, he continues to deliver words, but no action,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who was instrumental in blocking a bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate three years ago.
Thursday’s speech follows back-to-back White House meetings on legislative strategy between Obama and Latino lawmakers, community activists, labor leaders and immigration advocates.
“We are anxious; there is no doubt about that. Anxious to get started,” said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, who attended one of the White House meetings.
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., have filed an immigration reform bill in the House that includes a potential path for citizenship for people in the country illegally.
But in a move to protect vulnerable House Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would wait for the Senate to act first.
Obama made clear he had little interest in carving out some elements of immigration policy that might pass this year, instead insisting on a comprehensive package like one proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Under their plan, illegal immigrants would be required to pay fines and back taxes, pass background checks and prove that they could speak English before going to the back of the line of those seeking permanent legal residency. The plan would strengthen border security, create a process for tem- porary workers and require Social Security cards with biometric data such as fingerprints or retinal patterns to help ensure that illegal workers can’t get jobs.
But since offering the plan, Graham has balked at acting on immigration this year, and no other GOP senator has come forward to back it.
The president used Thursday’s speech to praise the contributions of immigrants to the U.S. and to reject the most dramatic solutions to illegal migration. Mass deportations would be “logistically impossible and wildly expensive,” he said, but blanket amnesty was “unwise and unfair” to those who played by the rules.
“In sum, the system is broken and everybody knows it,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing, specialinterest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.”
Immigration reform has been held hostage to political posturing, President Barack Obama said Thursday in Washington.