Seeking to inject urgency into the push for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, President Obama on Thursday called on Republicans to join the effort, telling them he can’t pass a bill without them.
After pushing through an economic stimulus bill and health care with barely any Republican support in the first 16 months of his administration, the president said this issue is too dangerous to tackle — for Democrats and the GOP — without having both parties involved.
“I’m ready to move forward, the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward, and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward. But the fact is without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem,” Mr. Obama told about 250 immigration-rights advocates in a speech at American University in Washington.
On the hottest flash point in the debate, Arizona’s new law targeting illegal immigrants, Mr. Obama said the rules are “unenforceable” for local police. But he didn’t give any indication when the administration will file an expected lawsuit seeking to block the new law, which takes effect at the end of this month.
Mr. Obama has already missed his own self-imposed deadline for getting a broad immigration bill passed. During the 2008 presidential campaign he told Hispanic audiences he wanted a bill in his first year.
And his new push is unlikely to bear fruit this year.
Advocates on both sides of the issue say they don’t expect Congress to tackle the issue before the elections, both because of the already-crowded legislative schedule and because there is no clear consensus on how to proceed.
Key Republicans say the borders must be secured first before the government considers legalizing illegal immigrants, and they point to recent violent incidents — including the killing of an Arizona rancher — as evidence the border is still not under control.
But Democrats argue that legalizing illegal immigrants has to be done at the same time, both for practical reasons 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.”
He called for legislation that would toughen penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants, create a program to both increase legal immigration and streamline the process. The president added that the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. should be given a long, multi-step path to citizenship if they pay fines, admit they broke the law and learn English.
Mr. Obama did not call for a guest-worker program, which business groups have argued would allow them to bring in the temporary workers they need.
That issue helped sink the 2007 immigration bill, which was the last time Congress tried to tackle the immigration question. That bill failed when a majority of the Senate, including more than a dozen Democrats, joined in a filibuster.
And it’s because the issue is so difficult for Democrats that Mr. Obama needs Republican support — in contrast to the stimulus, health care, and other major legislation which he was able to rely almost entirely on the overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress.