President Obama went into Thursday's major policy speech on immigration hoping to convince Republicans to join him in passing a bill, but walked out facing a bigger divide than ever - including having irked one key lawmaker who had been his major Republican ally on the issue.
Having already missed his goal of passing a bill his first year in office, Mr. Obama acknowledged that Democrats aren't unified on immigration and said he will have to rely on Republicans to advance a comprehensive bill in this Congress.
"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality," Mr. Obama said in a speech at American University. "The only way to reduce the risk that this effort will again falter because of politics is if members of both parties are willing to take responsibility for solving this problem once and for all."
Mr. Obama laid out his vision of a compromise, saying it should include penalties for employers who continue to hire illegal immigrants, and should legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here, and put them on a multistep path to citizenship after they have admitted they broke the law, paid a fine and learn English. He also said legal immigration should be streamlined and increased.
But he did not set a deadline for action and was silent on the issue of future temporary workers - a critical element of past comprehensive immigration bills, and a must-have for business groups and potential Republican supporters.
"I just don't see how we're being scolded for not rallying around what clearly is not comprehensive - and what's been offered so far is not comprehensive," said Rep. Jeff Flake, of Arizona, the lone Republican lawmaker to attend Mr. Obama's speech.
Mr. Flake, who has been a consistent supporter of a broad immigration bill and has often been the chief Republican sponsor of major immigration bills, said Mr. Obama's speech seemed less about winning legislation and more about winning political points with Democratic voters and liberal advocates.
He also said Mr. Obama was wrong to say the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona "is more secure today than at any time in the past 20 years."
"I think Arizonans would beg to differ," Mr. Flake said.
Arizona is ground zero for the immigration debate, and the state's new law targeting illegal immigrants is slated to take effect later this month.
Mr. Obama did not give an indication of when the administration will file an expected lawsuit seeking to block the law, but he did criticize it, saying it laid out rules for police that are "unenforceable."
"These laws also have the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning because of what they look like or how they sound," he said.
Advocates on both sides of the issue doubt a bill can pass this year.
Republican leaders dispute Mr. Obama's claim the borders are secure, and say no immigration bill can pass until they are.
"The president can make progress on this issue, but it will take more than a speech," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "If he would take amnesty off the table and make a real commitment to border and interior security, he will find strong bipartisan support."
Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders, though, argue legalizing illegal immigrants has to be done at the same time, both for workability and because they fear if the borders are secured first, it might sap momentum from the push for legalization.
"Our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols," Mr. Obama said. "It won't work."
Mr. Obama called on Republicans to return to the consensus he said existed several years ago around immigration, and particularly criticized 11 Senate Republicans who have voted for immigration bills in the past.
But it's unclear how solid that consensus was.
A bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate in 2006, but the Republican-controlled House insisted on border security instead.
The Senate tried again in 2007, under Democratic control, but a majority of senators, including more than a dozen Democrats, joined a filibuster against the bill.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the Bush administration, said there was a core bipartisan coalition in those years, but said it was built on a real compromise that included border security and a guest-worker program for future workers, as well as legalization of illegal immigrants.
"Sadly, instead of building on that coalition, this has done away with the coalition that existed, Mr. Aguilar said after Mr. Obama's speech. He also said Mr. Obama's record of outreach pales compared with the efforts President George W. Bush made on immigration in 2006 and 2007.
"There hasn't been a serious effort by this president to reach out to Republicans. Calling Scott Brown from Air Force One or summoning Senator [Lindsey] Graham to the White House is not working in a bipartisan way," he said. "We haven't seen the leadership from the president."
Immigration rights activists were generally happy with the speech, saying it touched on the issues they wanted to hear.
"We have been waiting for the president to lean forward and push with us on the immigration issue the same way he did as a presidential candidate. We hope this is the start of a sustained push," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.
But some advocates said Mr. Obama could have gone further and halted some of the Bush administration-era enforcement policies that have continued.
"If, as he acknowledged himself, the immigration system is fundamentally flawed, he has the responsibility not to pour salt on the wound by continuing to pursue the failed policies of enforcement-only that further disrupt families, communities, and business, but fail to fix the problem," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
Mr. Obama specifically ruled out putting a halt to deportations, saying that "would be both unwise and unfair."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.