President Barack Obama says he wants the U.S. Congress to make progress this year on reforming the U.S. immigration system. Mr. Obama spoke about the issue during an event marking Cinco de Mayo, the annual observance in the U.S., Mexico and other parts of the world of Mexican cultural heritage and pride:
After his success in getting the Congress to approve major health care reform legislation, the president has been working on other key domestic priorities, notably the difficult objective of reforming U.S. immigration laws.
Whether immigration reform has any chance of passing in the current divisive atmosphere on Capitol Hill remains to be seen, as Democrats assess what legislation they can expect to reasonably move in this mid-term congressional election year.
In recent remarks to reporters, the president called immigration a difficult issue and a matter of political will, saying he and majority Democrats would need help from Republicans to pass a bill.
At the Cinco de Mayo observance at the White House, he sought to re-clarify his position on prospects for reform, saying he wants progress this year.
"I want to begin work this year, and I want Democrats and Republicans to work with me," said President Obama.
With about six months to go before the 2010 mid-term elections, it's clear any effort to get immigration reform passed will have to originate in the U.S. Senate.
Last week, Democrats there unveiled what they call a conceptual proposal for reform, including such things as tougher border controls, and a path to citizenship for the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Calling the immigration system badly broken, with dysfunctional outcomes for millions of people and the U.S. economy, New York Senator Charles Schumer joined other Democratic leaders in urging Republicans to get on board.
"We are asking our Republican colleagues to come join with us in this difficult work. The time for talking points is over," said Schumer. "We know we cannot pass comprehensive reform unless it is bipartisan."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said any hope for progress will require the president to exert maximum political leadership.
"As I said when President Bush was president, and I say when President Obama is president, if there is going to be any movement in this regard, it will require presidential leadership, as well as an appetite, as well as a willingness to move forward in the Congress," said Pelosi.
Now front and center in the immigratioon debate is the controversial law in Arizona requiring non-citizens to carry documents proving their legal status, and authorizing police to question individuals suspected of lacking documentation.
Repeating his criticism of the Arizona law, the president said the answer on immigration is not to undermine fundamental principles that define America:
"We can't start singling out people because of who they look like or how they talk or how they dress," said Mr. Obama. "We can't turn law-biding American citizens and law-biding immigrants into subjects of suspicion and abuse. We can't divide the American people that way, that's not the answer, that's not who we are as the United States of America."
Before the president spoke, divisions over the Arizona law were heard again in Congress. In the House of Representatives, California Democrat Joe Baca, and Texas Republican Lamar Smith offered these opposing views.
Baca: This unconstitutional law [in Arizona] is inspired by racism [and] it will lead to racial profiling of Hispanics and people of color.
Smith: Maybe from a New York City skyscraper it's hard to see the border violence, the human smuggling, the drug trafficking, the lost jobs and the crowded schools, much of it caused by those who break our immigration laws."
As President Obama continues his outreach to Republicans whose support might help move the process ahead, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had this assessment of chances for gaining significant Republican support:
"I don't know the degree to which there are at least in the Senate there are a tremendous number of right now, Republican sponsors for that legislation," said Gibbs.
In the audience for President Obama's remarks were Hispanic members of Congress and the president's cabinet, along with Mexico's Ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, and Mexico's Secretary of the Interior.
President Obama looked ahead to the upcoming state visit of Mexico's president Felipe Calderon and his wife, scheduled to be at the White House in two weeks.