News / USA

Obama Challenges Republicans on Immigration Reform

President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform at the Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, May 10, 2011
President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform at the Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, May 10, 2011

President Barack Obama used the backdrop of the U.S-Mexico border on Tuesday for a major speech amplifying his calls for bipartisan reform of U.S. immigration laws.  

Facing continuing opposition from congressional Republicans on how best to achieve comprehensive reform, Mr. Obama is trying to elevate the debate about finding a solution to what most agree is a broken immigration system.

On Tuesday, he traveled to El Paso, Texas, a major crossing point on the more than 3,100 -kilometer border with Mexico.  As in other southwest states, illegal immigration is a hot topic in Texas where the  percentage of the population  that is Hispanic increased by 43 percent over the past decade.

In remarks after touring a cargo facility at the Bridge of the Americas, Mr. Obama listed steps he has taken to strengthen border security and cut down on illegal crossings, and said his administration has answered concerns voiced by opposition Republicans.

"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," said President Obama. "All the stuff they asked for, we have done."

Watch a related report by Kent Klein:

Briefing reporters this week, senior administration officials detailed those steps, which include more than doubling the number of border patrol agents to 20,700,  and a plan to extend deployment of National Guard troops.

The administration has increased cooperation with Mexico in fighting drug cartel violence, intensified screening of rail and vehicle traffic, and nearly completed construction of a 1200 kilometer border fence.  Officials also point to increased illegal drug and weapons seizures, and a 36 percent drop in illegal immigration attempts.

In El Paso, Mr. Obama repeated his call for Republicans to join him in finding common ground to enable a bipartisan solution to immigration reform.

"So, the question is whether those in Congress who previously walked away in the name of enforcement are now ready to come back to the table and finish the work that we have started," said Obama. "We have got to put the politics aside, and if we do, I am confident we can find common ground."

Mr. Obama did not set out any timeline for crafting immigration legislation.  He offered broad policy brush strokes, including requiring illegal immigrants to pay a fine, learn English, undergo background checks and wait in line for legalization, and holding businesses accountable for exploiting undocumented workers.

The president still faces opposition from key congressional Republicans who assert that any comprehensive immigration bill should wait until the border is secure.

Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, both from the southwestern state of Arizona, have proposed a 10 point plan they assert would achieve more control of the border.  Among other things, it proposes to deploy at least 6,000 National guard troops and 5,000 additional border patrol agents.

Kyl spoke with reporters on Capitol Hill earlier in the day.

"I think almost everybody recognizes that until the border is secured, any hope of additional legislation dealing with the immigration problem is not likely to succeed in the Congress," said Senator Kyl.

In his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Obama also reiterated his goal of achieving passage of the DREAM Act.  That legislation, which would allow undocumented youths to obtain legal residence status under specific conditions, was blocked in Congress.

President Obama's Texas remarks were the latest piece of what the White House intends to be an intensifying campaign on immigration reform, ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

It provided an opportunity for Mr. Obama to speak about the politically and economically significant immigration issue where it is of most intense concern, and appeal to Hispanic voters.

In the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Obama won the national Hispanic vote with 67 percent.  He lost Texas, a Republican stronghold, to Senator John McCain by a 10 percent margin.  

The president's day in Texas also included appearances at two Democratic Party fundraising events in Austin.  Later this week, Mr. Obama continues his outreach to the nation's Hispanics when he appears at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in the nation's capital.

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