President Barack Obama renewed his push for U.S. immigration reform on Thursday, reaching out to Hispanic voters despite minimal chances that Congress will pass such legislation this year.
In a broad speech that did not break new policy ground, Obama, a Democrat, called for Republican support to pass a law that addresses the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country without disrupting the economy or violating American values.
Obama has been under pressure to keep his promise from the 2008 presidential campaign to overhaul U.S. immigration rules. A tough new law in Arizona has brought the issue to the forefront of public debate, galvanizing Hispanics, who are an important constituency for November's congressional elections.
The president, speaking at American University, criticized the Arizona law but made no mention of a potential lawsuit by his administration to block it before it goes into affect on July 29. The U.S. Justice Department is expected to file a lawsuit challenging the law shortly. [ID:nN29176898]
Obama did not lay out a timetable for passing national reform but said he was ready to pursue the issue if Democrats and Republicans could work together.
"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 said.
"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality."
Both Democrats and Republicans are aware of that political reality, and some in the opposition party accused the president of pandering to his voter base.
Obama's speech on immigration came a day after he ripped Republicans for opposing financial reform and siding with big oil companies, new signs of a White House gearing up for tough elections in the fall. Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, are widely expected to lose seats.
But with energy legislation, financial reform and the economy topping his agenda, Obama is unlikely to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign to help Democrats hold on to power.
"In an environment where the Democrats feel vulnerable and where the economy is so bad, trying to say we need to give eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants is a very tough sell politically, and for the public," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
"IT WON'T WORK"
In a gesture to the opposition party, Obama had rare words of praise for his predecessor, George W. Bush, calling him courageous for working toward immigration reform while he was in office. That attempt proved unsuccessful.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch characterized Obama's speech as "little more than cynical political pandering to his left wing political base and is more about giving backdoor amnesty to illegal immigrants than real reform."
In May, Obama said he wanted to begin work on immigration reform this year. He supports a system that holds undocumented immigrants "accountable" by having them pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English and become citizens.
"No matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable," Obama said.
He also backs tightening border security and clamping down on employers that hire undocumented workers. He highlighted those points on Thursday, while saying the slow system of processing legal immigrants must be fixed, too.
The president also argued against relying on closed borders alone to fix the problem.
"There are those who argue that we should not move forward with any other elements of reform until we have fully sealed our borders," he said. "Our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols. It won't work."
Republicans have honed in on the border issue, which is a top priority for voters in border states such as Arizona.
"If he would take amnesty off the table and make a real commitment to border and interior security, he will find strong bipartisan support," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
"But attacks on states filling the breach created by the failure of the federal government won't secure the border, grow jobs or create solutions for what we all agree is a broken immigration system," he said.