President Barack Obama said he will press for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, calling the system “fundamentally broken” and urging Republicans to abandon “election-year politics” and join the effort.
“What we have made clear is that this administration will not just kick the can down the road,” Obama said in a speech at the American University School of International Service in Washington. “Immigration reform is no exception.”
Obama said passing comprehensive overhaul would be impossible without Republican support. He needs at least 60 votes in the Senate to overcome Republican opposition and ensure a floor vote on legislation. Democrats control 58 seats.
“Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes,” Obama said. Lacking bipartisan support, “we cannot solve this problem.”
Other major hurdles facing any overhaul effort this year are the midterm elections in November and a congressional agenda crowded with priorities such as confirming Elena Kagan as a Supreme Court justice, passing budget and spending bills, and final action on financial regulation overhaul.
Obama has repeatedly pledged to tighten border security and revamp immigration laws to deal with the millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. He reiterated that vow in May during a state visit by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and earlier this week in a meeting with immigration groups, which Democrats can’t afford to alienate in this election year.
‘System Is Broken’
“The system is broken, and everybody knows it,” Obama said today.
Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from the border state of Texas, criticized the president for not making immigration a priority during his first year in office as he had promised.
“Eighteen months into his presidency, he continues to deliver words, but no action,” Cornyn said in a statement.
Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, who has written a book on immigration, called it an “agenda-setting speech,” though he said it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass legislation this year.
The message, West said, to supporters and critics alike was to “moderate and compromise” on their views.
Groups in favor of immigration legislation, such as the National Council of La Raza and the Center for American Progress, applauded the speech. La Raza President Janet Murguia, said in a conference call with reporters that it came at a “critical time.”
“The president demonstrated great courage and conviction,” Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said. “We hope his words of wisdom are heard on Capitol Hill.”
Obama said “reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.”
Mexico’s Calderon lobbied Obama for an immigration overhaul after Arizona passed a law cracking down on illegal immigrants. The law prompted nationwide demonstrations in the U.S. on both sides of the issue, and the Justice Department is reviewing the measure and may challenge it in court.
Obama said the Arizona law has “the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning, because of what they look like, or how they sound.”
He rejected the idea of rounding up illegal immigrants, saying it would be “logistically impossible and wildly expensive.”
Obama said the legal immigration system “is as broken as the borders” because of backlogs, and it “takes years” to process applications. Crimes go unreported because victims and witnesses fear coming forward, making it harder for police to catch violent, drug-smuggling criminals, he said.
The government loses, too, because billions in tax revenue go uncollected each year as many undocumented workers are paid under the table, he said.
The politics of “who is allowed” in the U.S. have always been contentious, Obama said. “Our borders have been porous for decades” because we “don’t do a very good job” of tracking who is coming in.
Making ‘a Mockery’
“The 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable,” he said, adding that the presence of so many undocumented people “makes a mockery of all those who are going through the process legally.”
He said the U.S. has “more boots on the ground” at the southwest border than ever, with a doubling of enforcement agents and a tripling of intelligence forces. The result has been the seizure of more guns, cash and drugs than in past years, Obama said.
“Contrary to some of the reports that you see, crime along the border is down,” Obama said, without citing a specific figure.
The administration in May announced it would deploy as many as 1,200 National Guard troops and seek $500 million more in funding to help with security measures on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Noah Pickus, an immigration expert at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said the answer lies in a step-by-step program, beginning with verification of immigrants in the workplace, before tackling border issues.
“It’s like nuclear arms negotiations -- how do we take some steps to trust but verify?” Pickus said in a telephone interview. “Saying that we just need Republicans on board and have the courage to do this -- when people don’t trust, the last thing you need to do is say they’re cowardly.”