WASHINGTON, July 1, 2010 -- President Obama today sought to tap into national frustration over the country's "fundamentally broken" immigration system, calling on Republicans to join him in a renewed push for comprehensive immigration reform, which has largely foundered on the legislative agenda.
Speaking at American University in Washington just one month before Arizona's new immigration law is set to take effect, Obama evoked the country's roots as a nation of immigrants, calling on lawmakers to establish a "clear national standard" for immigration policy, and prevent a patchwork of state immigration laws.
"The system is broken and everybody knows it," Obama said. "Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special interest wrangling, to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics."
"Our task now is to make our national laws actually work, to shape the system that reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That means being honest about the problem and getting past the false debates that divide the country rather than bring it together," he said.
Obama's remarks come on the heels of separate meetings earlier this week with immigration and labor advocates and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the White House, during which Obama sought to offer reassurances that the administration is committed to comprehensive reform.
"I'm ready to move forward, the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward, and I believe the majority of American people are ready to move forward," Obama said. "But the fact is that it cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality."
So far, no Republican Senators have publicly backed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, and no Republicans have co-sponsored Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez's pending legislation in the House.
Obama reiterated his support for the reform framework reached by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., earlier this year that calls for a "tough but fair path forward" for undocumented immigrants, and mirrors a plan laid out by Gutierrez that now has more than 100 co-sponsors in the House.
The proposals would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs, are in school or serve in the U.S. military to "earn legalization" by registering with the government, passing background checks, learning English and paying taxes and fees
"Our nation has the right to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship," Obama said of the nation's 10.8 million undocumented immigrants. "And no matter how decent they are or their reasons for being here, they broke these laws and should be held accountable."
But, Obama acknowledged, the country needs to develop a reasonable solution to the problem.
"Americans are skeptical of amnesty but they're also skeptical of rounding up and deporting all these people," he said. Deporting all of them "would tear at the fabric of this nation because immigrants who are here illegally are already woven into that fabric."
Obama Urges Lawmakers to 'Put Politics Aside' to Address Immigration
Some Republicans responded sharply to the president's address, accusing Obama of "pandering" to the Hispanic community and being disingenuous about the prospect of passing reform this year.
"They have 59 Democrats in the Senate. They had 60 at one time. They have an overwhelming number in the House, and they haven't done a doggone thing for immigrants or to solve the immigration problems," said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch on ABC News' "Top Line."
"You know doggone well there's no way they can put an immigration bill through in the remaining days that we have in this Congress," Hatch added.
In March, Obama urged the Senate to act on Schumer's and Graham's bipartisan proposal "at the earliest possible opportunity" and said he would "do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year" on immigration reform.
But after the bruising and partisan battle over health care reform, Graham and many Republicans have been reluctant to join with Democrats to address the issue. And ahead of November's midterm elections, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have emphasized the need to "secure the border first" before considering a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
"Once we get the border secured, then we can support a lot of things," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said earlier this month. "Until then, it's going to be very difficult." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has dismissed those claims as unrealistic.
"The notion that you're going to somehow seal the border and only at that point will you discuss immigration reform – that is not an answer to the problem," she said.
In the past year, the administration has detained and deported a record number of illegal immigrants and amassed unprecedented levels of border patrol agents and asked for other security measures along the border. Last month, Obama announced the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border, including 524 to Arizona, and requested $500 million in emergency funds for beefed-up measures.
"For months, we have been demanding that this administration take action and be the lead on comprehensive immigration reform. And then, from the White House, we hear a president that's committed and assertive and in command and in charge," Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez told ABC News. "He has a very clear commitment to getting this done."
Immigrant Groups Look for Action from White House, Congress
Democrats are eager to court Latino voters ahead of November's midterm elections amid worry that inaction on immigration reform could hurt the party at the ballot box. But today Obama offered no specific timeline for achieving an immigration reform bill.
"Actions speak louder than words," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant advocacy group. "The president must take action and lead Congress in reforming a broken immigration system that offends our most basic values."
Two thirds of Latino voters, who have been a staunch Democratic voting bloc, cast ballots for Obama in 2008. But experts say Latino voter turnout could suffer, particularly in the 2012 presidential campaign, if they continue to be disappointed.
The latest Gallup poll shows Hispanics' approval of President Obama has fallen from 69 percent in January to 57 percent in May.
Congress last enacted immigration reform legislation in 1986, when millions of illegal immigrants were granted amnesty and enforcement measures were strengthened. That effort proved ineffective at curtailing the flow of illegal immigrants, 12 million of whom are now estimated to reside in the United States.