Obama urges Congress not to put off immigration reform

But lawmakers are in no rush to tackle a controversial issue that has broad economic and social implications.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama talks with members of the press after meeting with members of Congress to discuss immigration, Thursday in Washington.

President Obama Thursday called for some “heavy lifting” on immigration reform on Capitol Hill, but there’s no move there to rush into it.

With energy, healthcare, and financial regulation on a fast track, there’s little running room for an issue that has baffled lawmakers for the past three years. But for president and a critical mass of interest groups heavily invested in comprehensive reform, even a symbolic stake in the ground is a start.

“The consensus is that despite our inability to get this passed over the last several years, the American people still want to see a solution,” Mr. Obama said after a bipartisan meeting with House and Senate members.

“We’ve got a responsible set of leaders sitting around the table who want to actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing now,” he said.

Pressed on the issue at a briefing today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “the plan has always been for the Senate to go first.”

The Senate passed immigration reform in 2006, but efforts bogged down in 2007 and 2008. House Democrats, who all face voters every two years, want to be assured that a plan can pass the Senate, before taking what is for many a tough vote.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said at a Monitor Breakfast Thursday that one of the reasons the president called a meeting with lawmakers is to keep a focus on the issue because there isn’t yet a majority to pass comprehensive legislation.

“The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and immigration groups have all asked for a meeting because the votes aren’t there,” he said. “If the votes were there, you wouldn’t need to have the meeting, you’d go to a roll call.”

“If it doesn’t happen in the next two months, I don’t think that that means that it doesn’t happen between now and 2010,” he added.

But the administration isn’t waiting on Congress to take steps to ease barriers to legal immigration.

For the foreign nationals lined up for news about their citizenship applications, the process is about to get easier. Within the next 90 days, those updates will be coming by e-mail, text message, or online, the president announced at today’s immigration summit.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also cleared up much of the backlog of immigration background checks, and the famously opaque US Citizenship and Immigration Services Office will soon be “much more efficient, much more transparent, much more user-friendly than it has been in the past,” Obama added.

“My administration is fully behind an effort to achieve comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

That reform agenda, as outlined in today’s meeting, includes: tightening borders, cracking down on employers who use illegal workers in order to drive down wages, and a path to legal status for the “undocumented workers who are here.”

Conspicuous for its absence is emphasis on an expanded guest-worker program – a top priority for some US businesses and a fixture in the last immigration-reform drive.

“The White House meeting today is intended as political theater – a bone being thrown to the pro-amnesty groups to demonstrate the White House’s commitment to amnesty, even though they don’t have the votes to pass it,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes stricter controls on immigration.

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