EL PASO, Texas — Fighting political gridlock that has doomed immigration legislation for years, President Obama on Tuesday made his first visit to the border since taking office and told activists and immigrant-rights supporters it’s up to them to force Congress to act.
Shying away from a specific proposal himself, Mr. Obama instead sketched the outlines of a legalization plan. He also stopped short of setting a deadline for action the way he has done on other major issues.
Instead, he made the case that with more Border Patrol agents, a border fence and falling crime rates, he has checked border security off the to-do list, and it’s time for Congress to write a legalization bill - an issue that has stalled since 2007, when it failed in a dramatic bipartisan filibuster on the Senate floor.
“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done,” he said.
“But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us.”
Deploying moral and economic arguments for legalization, the president sketched the outlines of legislation he said he would like to see, but spent most of his time urging activists to help build a political consensus necessary to prod Congress.
Republicans were not ready to concede that the borders are secure enough, and said that continues to take priority over legalization. They pointed to a February report by Congress’ chief watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, that said just 44 percent of the 2,000-mile-long border is under operational control, and just 15 percent is totally controlled.
“Mr. President, 44 percent is a failing grade,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican. “If 44 percent is the most secure the border has ever been, it’s time to get to work to improve the grade. The American people expect nothing less than an A-plus on border security.”
Mr. Obama ridiculed those objections, saying he can never do enough to appease some: “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat,” he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last week told Congress that she is scrapping the “operational control” yardstick and will come up with a new definition to measure border security that does not require the border to be entirely sealed - something she said is not achievable.
Given that Republicans now control the House, it’s doubtful that Mr. Obama’s push for legislative action goes far, but policy is only half of the equation.
Mr. Obama also is preparing to face voters next year having seen his support among Hispanics drop substantially since the election. His move to reignite the immigration debate could help rebuild that support and, just as important, keep Hispanic voters from supporting Republicans in 2012.
Senate Democrats are prepared to push the issue. On Wednesday, they will reintroduce the Dream Act, legislation designed to legalize illegal immigrant students and young adults, which failed in last year’s lame-duck session of Congress.
Mr. Obama spoke to a crowd of hundreds at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, after he first toured a cargo inspection facility on the border where he examined contraband alfalfa seed that had been seized.
The audience booed when Mr. Obama said his administration is just a few miles shy of completing hundreds of miles of border fencing - something he supported when he was in the Senate.
While the president was speaking, the White House released a blueprint for a four-part plan to address immigration: maintain border security enhancements; phase in mandatory electronic checks for all employees; revamp the legal immigration system; and grant a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants who go through a background check, haven’t committed crimes, pay fines and back taxes and wait at least eight years before getting a green card.
Mr. Obama’s call for activists to build pressure on lawmakers could be the sweet spot that allows him to show leadership on the issue without getting a law passed, or without having to act unilaterally to halt deportations.
“The question is whether those in Congress who previously walked away in the name of enforcement are now willing to come back to the table and finish the work that we started,” Mr. Obama said.
Though he didn’t name names, it’s likely he was talking about lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was his opponent in 2008 and who supported immigration legislation in the past, but now says voters have made clear they want to see more border security.
On the other side of the political equation are Hispanic and immigrant-rights activists who say during the campaign Mr. Obama promised to tackle immigration his first year in office, but has not followed through.
They say the president has powers to unilaterally halt deportations for broad
categories of people, and in the absence of congressional legislation, they are insisting he use that authority.
“We will continue to remind the president: yes, you can stop students deportations; yes, you can stop splitting families apart; yes, you can do your part now,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
The president previously ruled out using discretionary authority to halt deportations, but in a meeting with top Hispanic lawmakers last week, Mr. Obama said he would revisit the issue.
Immigration reform has been all but stalled for four years since a bipartisan effort, backed by President Bush, failed to push a bill through the Senate.
At the same time, some states are enacting legislation designed to get police involved in enforcing immigration laws.
Just hours before Mr. Obama’s El Paso visit, the Texas House passed a bill that would prevent so-called “sanctuary cities” from telling police to ignore immigration violations.
The Justice Department has sued to block a stricter law in Arizona that requires police to check immigration status of those they detain whom they suspect of being in the country illegally. Federal courts have halted that law, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said this week that she would appeal to the Supreme Court.