Obama Makes Pitch for Immigration Overhaul in Border City

President Barack Obama is trying to step up pressure on Congress to act on revamping U.S. immigration laws while also courting a key constituency that he needs to win re-election next year.

For the fifth time in three weeks, Obama is putting an overhaul of the immigration system on his agenda with a speech today in El Paso, Texas -- a state where Hispanics make up 37.6 percent of the population and 48 percent of those under 18.

Like his White House predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has been stymied in getting congressional action on rewriting laws to deal with the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally while also securing U.S. borders and dealing with the concerns of businesses that need a supply of both skilled and unskilled workers. The chances of passing a measure before the 2012 presidential election are small, since Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives and have seized upon border security as their primary concern.

Obama is waging a “campaign to build public awareness and public support for comprehensive immigration reform, which we have to do to make sure that it’s got the kind of momentum behind it that gets Congress’s attention,” said Jay Carney, the president’s spokesman.

The administration is adding an economic appeal to its arguments for an immigration overhaul.

Competitive Edge

Business leaders including Cargill Inc. Chief Executive Officer Greg Page, Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and former Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, now JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s chairman for Florida, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, were among a group of political, religious and law enforcement officials invited to the White House on April 19 to discuss overhauling the U.S. immigration system with the president.

“The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete,” Carney said yesterday. He said it is “simply foolish” to have college students from around the world studying in U.S. colleges and universities without letting them “stay to start businesses, to launch startups, to create jobs here in America.”

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said he is glad to see Obama revive the issue, even if the effort doesn’t have enough political support yet to move forward.

Living in Shadows

“I really applaud his effort to solve the problem not only of millions of people living in the shadows, but also a problem for the American society and economy,” Calderon said in a Bloomberg Television interview in New York.

Opposition to any changes in the law that would provide illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship has hardened, with increased demands from border states that the federal government do more to secure the U.S. border with Mexico amid spreading drug violence there.

Last year the Arizona legislature passed -- and Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed into law -- a measure requiring police officers to check immigration status when they arrest or stop someone and have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. The measure also requires registered aliens to carry documentation with them at all times. A federal appellate court has blocked enforcement of the law, and Brewer said yesterday that the state would appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Concerns about border security are “constantly used as a one-liner” by opponents of an immigration law overhaul, said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton.

Border Enforcement

In response to those critics, the Obama administration has stepped up border enforcement and deportations, which he is likely to highlight today in a city with one of the U.S.’s busiest border crossings.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 392,862 illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2010, the largest number in the agency’s history. About half were criminals, setting a record for the number of criminals deported, the agency said.

Those steps have served to draw criticism from Hispanics without attracting more support for action on the law.

After a May 3 meeting with the president, Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, expressed frustration with Obama.

Seeking Balance

The focus of the administration has been “enforcement, enforcement, enforcement,” Gutierrez said. “They’ve deported 400,000 people, more than any other administration. What we are saying is there has to be some balance.”

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the administration hasn’t approached Republicans about working on legislation.

“If the president is serious, his first priority should be stopping the violence on our border,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said in an e-mailed statement.

The president’s decision to stage his speech in El Paso is “good politics” because it’s an area where border enforcement has been significantly beefed up, said Meissner, who is also a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research organization that studies migration issues.

Frank Sharry, the director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group based in Washington, said some Hispanic voters may stay away from the ballot box in 2012 unless the president takes more “concrete” steps on immigration after promising to make it a priority in his 2008 campaign.

“What the president’s doing is not going to be sufficient to mobilize Latino voters for 2012, though it may be sufficient to help tee up immigration reform for 2013,” said Sharry, who attended the April 19 White House meeting. Anger within the Hispanic community, he said, is based on “high expectations dashed spectacularly.”

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