President Barack Obama, visiting the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time as president, is trying to build pressure on Republicans to take on comprehensive immigration legislation — while showing vital Hispanic voters that he is not the one standing in the way.
Obama's speech in El Paso, Texas, May 11 will mark an attempt by the White House to escalate the debate over immigration despite opposition from majority House Republicans to legislation offering a pathway to citizenship to the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.
Instead of trying to make deals on Capitol Hill — where even some Republicans who once supported a comprehensive overhaul have turned against it — Obama is taking his argument to the country, using the singular megaphone of the presidency to try to build a groundswell of support for legislation.
It comes as many Latino voters, believing that the president never made good on his campaign promise to tackle immigration laws in the first year of his presidency, want to see him do more. They want Obama not just to push legislation but to act unilaterally to slow some deportations, something the president has refused to do.
"The approach we are taking is that we are trying to, recognizing the hurdles that we face legislatively, we are trying to build awareness and support for the need for comprehensive immigration reform to fix this broken system," presidential spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One from Washington to El Paso.
"As in so many cases the train is leaving the station and Washington is still trying to find the train station," Carney said. "This is something that we're hoping that we can push from the outside in here, to get Congress to address the fact that this is a broken system that needs to be fixed."
At the same time, the strategy allows Obama to highlight that Republicans are the ones blocking an immigration bill — shifting responsibility away from himself as his reelection campaign approaches.
And although Obama is offering a policy "blueprint," he's not putting out a bill or setting a deadline for Congress to produce one, leading critics to dismiss his efforts as little more than politics in pursuit of the ever-growing Hispanic electorate. Latinos accounted for more than 7 percent of voters in the 2008 presidential election, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and their numbers are greater in certain swing states like Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
"He does need to do more to shore up Latino support, and while welcome, this initiative is not going to be sufficient to do so," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice Education Fund, a pro-immigration group, said in an interview Tuesday. Sharry said that Obama is taking the right approach in pushing Congress toward what may be an eventual legislative victory, even if not in the near term, but that he needs to act on other issues including the deportations creating turmoil in Latino communities.
The president picked hostile political territory to make his pitch, visiting a state he lost by more than 10 percentage points in 2008. But the trip does have one overtly political upside: Obama plans a side visit to the relatively liberal bastion of Austin to raise money for the Democratic National Committee at two fundraisers Tuesday night.
At the same time, Obama is pitching his immigration argument to the larger public, and he's refining it in a way that goes to Americans' pocketbook concerns. White House officials say Obama will emphasize the economic value of reforming immigration laws, noting that immigrants account for a substantial share of business start-ups and patent applications, among other things — activities that create jobs for everyone.
The president will also argue that his administration has made great strides on border security. Administration officials boast of increasing the number of agents on the border, seizing more contraband and nearing completion of a border fence, and say they plan to extend the deployment of National Guard troops Obama sent to the border. To Republicans who say that immigration overhaul legislation shouldn't happen until the border is secure, the White House now says it's as secure as it's ever been and the conversation on legislation needs to happen.
Republicans aren't buying it.
"The president's push to legalize millions of illegal immigrants is purely political," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "And even though administration officials like to pretend the border is secure, the reality is that it isn't. ... It is unlikely the President will succeed anytime soon. "
Indeed, getting immigration reform done this year or next is not realistic. Obama wasn't even able to get legislation through Congress last year that would have provided a route to legal status for college students and others who were brought to the country as children. The so-called DREAM Act passed the House, then controlled by Democrats, but was blocked by Senate Republicans.
The Senate is now even more heavily Republican, and Republicans control the House. That means immigration reform can't happen unless they cooperate.
But for Obama, if the public's aware of that, it's a political win — even if Republicans don't budge.
Associated Press writers Suzanne Gamboa and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this story.
Source: Darlene Superville and Erica Werner, Associated Press
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.