Why busy Obama is focusing on long-shot issue of immigration reform

President Obama gives a speech Thursday on the need for federal immigration reform. He may be directing attention to the issue in a bid to turn up the heat on Congress to act, some analysts say.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
President Barack Obama arrives for his closing press conference at the G20 summit in Toronto on June 27. Obama is giving a speech on federal immigration reform Thursday.

President Obama delivers a well-telegraphed speech on America’s broken immigration system Thursday morning, in which he will lay out his support for a comprehensive approach to reform: not just enhanced border security, but also accountability for employers and a pathway to legalized status for immigrants already in the country.

Mr. Obama already devoted some time to the issue earlier this week, first in a meeting Monday with activists and then another meeting Tuesday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But the White House has made clear that the speech will not propose a timetable for action. Translation: Don’t count on seeing Congress take up legislation by the end of the year. Advocates for comprehensive reform are already disappointed by Obama, who had promised during his presidential campaign that he would take action in 2009. So doesn’t Obama risk further disappointment with more talk?

Perhaps, analysts say, but Obama can still advance the conversation.

IN PICTURES: The US/Mexico border

“He can talk about what he’s already done at the border ... and then promise to continue to put pressure on Congress,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The speech will take place at 10:45 a.m. Eastern at American University in Washington.

In laying the groundwork for the speech, White House spokesmen have stressed the responsibilities faced by all stakeholders in the issue.

“Most specifically, [Obama] thinks this debate is about accountability – accountability for securing the border, accountability for employers who are hiring illegal immigrants, and accountability for those who are in this country illegally,” deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Wednesday.

Obama also appears set to place blame on Republican legislators, many of whom have supported comprehensive reform in the past but have pulled away.

“Only with Republican support can we move forward on immigration,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.

As the November midterm elections draw near, Obama has turned up the heat on Republicans on other issues, including the economy and energy reform. After his meeting Monday with advocates of comprehensive immigration reform – many of them Hispanic – some came away expressing frustration toward GOP unwillingness to work with Democrats on the issue. The lead Republican on comprehensive immigration reform, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, backed away from the issue in April after Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada announced he wanted to put immigration reform ahead of energy reform on the Senate agenda.

Obama has since reached out to a half-dozen Republican senators to try to spur bipartisan action, but found no takers. Another onetime stalwart for comprehensive reform, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, has also taken a harder line in the face of a tough primary challenge that threatens his reelection.

Arizona’s strict new immigration-control law has also given Obama fodder for his federal immigration reform push, amid concerns that a lack of action in Washington will give way to an unwieldy patchwork of laws across the country. Arizona’s law, which goes into effect July 29, requires local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people “reasonably suspected” of being in the US illegally and stopped for other possible legal infractions. The Obama administration has raised concerns the law could lead to ethnic profiling, and is reportedly preparing to file a lawsuit challenging the Arizona statute.

Tensions flared between Washington and Arizona earlier this week, when a team of federal officials met with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) on border security and announced that the state would get 524 of the 1,200 planned new troops for the US border with Mexico. Governor Brewer called that allocation inadequate.

Polls show Americans strongly back the Arizona law and the emphasis on border security, but the immigration issue contains political risks for both parties. Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate, voted heavily for Obama in 2008, and Democrats could lock in Hispanic support well into the future if they are perceived as more sympathetic to their concerns – including, but not limited to, immigration policy. But short-term, the Republican emphasis on law and order is likely a winner in many battleground states and districts.

Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert on immigration policy, sees some hope for the Obama administration in public polls.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 58 percent support for the new Arizona law, but almost equal support (57 percent) for a program that would give “illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.”

“This should be welcome news for the president and proponents of comprehensive immigration reform and should be a signal to Congress that the American public may be more prepared to accept a bargain struck between supporters of enforcement-only proposals and supporters of legalization,” Ms. Singer wrote on the Brookings website.


IN PICTURES: The US/Mexico border

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