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Obama to lay out new immigration reform blueprint in El Paso

As states take unilateral actions on immigration, Obama lays out his administration's accomplishments with border security and makes the economic case for comprehensive immigration reform.

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“It’s clear there’s a president who’s feeling pressure from all points on the compass,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which favors comprehensive reform.

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Others see Obama’s current focus as a result of dissatisfaction among voters on the immigration problem.

“It’s a message not only to Latino voters, but also to other people that he’s taking this issue seriously, despite some of the things he has working against him,” says Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution. “The state and local pushes and pulls are actually starting to have a collective effect.”

The Mexico-US border

Obama is traveling to the border for his speech, in part to emphasize his administration's accomplishments with respect to border security. According to a senior administration official, nearly all of the 652 miles of fence mandated by Congress has been completed; border agents have been heavily increased; seizures of contraband have risen; and illegal immigration attempts have decreased 36 percent in the past two years, down to less than one-third what they were ten years ago, at their peak.

“Taken as a whole, the manpower, resources, and technology represent the most sustained actions securing our Southwest border ever in our nation’s history,” said the official. “This is as secure a border as there has ever been.”

Still, many Republicans and anti-immigration groups see more work to be done. Last month, Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and John Kyl (R) called for increased enforcement and released a 10-point plan for border security, saying that border violence has “spiraled out of control."

“The problem with the debate around immigration reform is that people are stuck in the way they feel about things,” says Ms. Singer. “When you look at Obama’s record … it looks like he’s been stronger than his predecessor on enforcement issues. But people vehemently opposed to leniency toward immigrants in the US are never going to see that.”

At Tuesday's speech, Obama will make the economic case for immigration reform, arguing that it is necessary for continued growth. “Comprehensive immigration reform would be a plus, not a drag, on the federal budget,” says another senior administration official, speaking on background before the speech.

That’s an argument that NumbersUSA President Roy Beck, who opposes immigration, calls “smoke and mirrors,” given the level of unemployment right now.

No matter how concerted the effort by the Obama administration, congressional action is unlikely. The last big push for reform in 2007, under President Bush, failed, despite strong backing from a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled Congress. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly said that any legislation including a form of amnesty will be nonstarter.

Some critics see the current immigration focus as simple pandering for votes, rather than a genuine effort to find consensus.

“It’s convenient that this is coming on the heels of his announcement as a candidate,” says Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes amnesty. Ms. Williamson criticized Obama for only reaching out to like-minded people in his recent meetings on immigration, rather than to congressmen or border politicians who might disagree with him.

“He’s using immigration as a political wedge issue rather than making this about what the country really needs,” she says.

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