Immigrant rights advocates, poised to rally, pressure Obama

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Immigrant rights groups say President Obama has bought himself some breathing space after a tense meeting Thursday, but that the White House will have to show real progress on an immigration bill by March 21 when tens of thousands of immigrant rights marchers are scheduled to rally in Washington.

Mr. Obama met Thursday with immigrant rights activists, then later met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and with Sens. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who are working on a bipartisan bill to legitimize the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

The president said the meetings were a chance to get a progress update, adding that he will “continue to be their partner in this important effort.”

But immigration advocates said they told Mr. Obama he will need to take concrete steps over the next 10 days to prove to them he is serious. Otherwise, they said, he risks the image of tens of thousands of marchers being told the president has not made good on his campaign promises to pass a bill.

“He bought himself time until March 21, but this was a pre-showdown meeting where we talked about what the partnership would look like, but we’re going to have a clear point in time on March 21 where we look at what’s different before our meeting and after our meeting,” said Chung-Hwa Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Immigration leaders who attended the meeting said they told Mr. Obama the pain caused by deportations and immigration enforcement, while he told them of the political obstacles to passing an immigration bill this year.

The leaders want Mr. Obama to halt deportations and also have asked the president to suspend interior enforcement while census takers are in the field this year, fearing that immigrants will be reluctant to respond to government workers knocking on their doors. But the administration has defended both the historic rate of deportations and continuing enforcement during the census.

Hispanic and immigrant groups were upset when the president spent just seconds on the issue during his lengthy State of the Union address. Mr. Obama promised more strenuous public statements of support.

The last time Congress tried to pass an immigration bill was in 2007 and it was defeated by a bipartisan filibuster that attracted the support of a majority of the Senate. Lawmakers said voters weren’t convinced the government could secure the borders and enforce workplace laws.

Mr. Graham said Mr. Obama must solve that concern if a bill is to pass, and that it means getting a handle on the “virtual fence” status on the U.S.-Mexico border, which is bogged down in delays and technological problems.

He also said Mr. Obama will need to pressure labor unions to accept a temporary-worker program.

He warned, though, that the entire immigration push could be scuttled if Democrats push a health care bill through Congress by short-circuiting the usual 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

“Immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward,” he said.

Mr. Graham and Mr. Schumer have been working for months to try to come up with a bill that would legitimize the status of illegal immigrants, create a new program for businesses to verify their workers’ legality and write rules for future immigrant workers.

They said they gave Mr. Obama their framework and he promised to review it. Mr. Obama, in his statement, said he is “optimistic” the senators and immigration advocates can create the climate for passing a bill.

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