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Obama Renews Calls for GOP Support on Immigration Reform

July 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Immigration took center stage in Washington today, as President Obama pushed for reform.

The president called for Congress to reject election-year politics and embrace comprehensive reform, in his first major address on immigration since taking office.

U.S. PRESDIENT BARACK OBAMA: Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special interest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking at American University in Washington, Mr. Obama rejected an approach that focuses mainly on border security.

BARACK OBAMA: There are those who argue that we should not move forward with any other elements of reform until we have fully sealed our borders. But our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols. It won’t work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The speech came amid a renewed national debate sparked by an Arizona law that takes effect later this month. The law will make it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It also orders police to question someone’s immigration status, if there is — quote — “reasonable suspicion.”

Mr. Obama warned again today that could result in racial profiling. And immigration advocates are urging his administration to file suit to block the state law, on the grounds the federal government has sole authority to regulate immigration. The president said a clear, national standard is needed, and he urged Republicans to join in supporting a bill that sets one.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, the president has ordered 1,200 National Guard troops, like these, to the border.

Today, he said, with the highest ever level of security, illegal crossings are down significantly.

For more on the policy and the politics behind immigration reform, we are joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Linda Feldmann, White House correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

Good to have you both with us. We appreciate it.

Susan Page, to you first. What was the thrust of what the president was saying today?

SUSAN PAGE, Washington bureau chief, USA Today: Well, the president repeated what he said before, which is that he supports a comprehensive immigration bill.

Here’s what he didn’t say. He didn’t say here’s a timetable that we’re going to pursue. And he didn’t promise there would be action this year. And he didn’t mention a lawsuit, legal action that we expect the administration to take against that Arizona law that takes effect on July 29.

What he basically did was restate his previous position as an assurance to his supporters that this is an issue he has not forgotten.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does he want to see done, Linda Feldmann?

LINDA FELDMANN, White House correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor: Well, there are four pieces to comprehensive immigration reform.

He wants to strengthen border security, which everybody agrees on. And then, at the same time, he also wants to focus on other elements. One is that employers are — are held responsible for making sure that their employees are here legally.

He wants the illegal immigrants themselves to step forward, admit they have broken the law, and then have a pathway for them to take steps to become legal, to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English. And then the final piece is to fix the system of legal immigration, which is just as broken as every other aspect of the system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if there’s no timetable, Susan Page, what’s the real purpose of this speech?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, one thing, it was a shout-out to Harry Reid. The Senate majority leader is facing a very tough reelection battle in Nevada, which has a big Hispanic population.

Harry Reid has promised action on this, this year, which he repeated after the president’s speech today. That’s not likely to happen. It’s a message to some of these Hispanic voters, especially younger Hispanic voters, who came out and voted for him in 2008, in hopes that this issue would have a pretty high priority.

It’s been sort of sidelined by other issues, including the economic issues, the stimulus package, financial regulations, health care reform, two wars. So, it hasn’t gotten the attention that advocates had hoped it would.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He referred time and again today to the partisanship and the polarization on this issue. To what extent is that holding this back?

LINDA FELDMANN: That’s the whole ball of wax. I mean, when George Bush was president, George Bush II, he came very close to getting that passed. And George Bush, of course, was a Republican, but he had a significant amount of Republican support for that.

That has melted away. John McCain no longer is backing comprehensive immigration reform. Lindsey Graham, who was the last Republican standing, he backed away, said he wouldn’t support that, in response to Harry Reid saying he wanted immigration to go ahead of energy reform. So, they’re — the Democrats are left standing on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Susan, what’s behind the opposition? Is there — is it genuine disagreement with what the president’s proposing, or what?

SUSAN PAGE: I think a couple things have made this harder now than it was even when George W. Bush tried it and failed. One is that the economy is so bad. Unemployment is so high. We’re going to get new unemployment numbers tomorrow.

We think it’s going to head back toward 10 percent. That makes a lot of Americans less sympathetic to illegal immigrants. Many feel that they’re taking away jobs Americans might have. You know, the other thing that’s made the politics of this harder is the rise of the Tea Party movement, which has really focused issue — focused on opposition to illegal immigration.

For someone like John McCain, the senator from Arizona, who faces a tough Republican primary in August, he used to talk about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Facing this conservative challenger in his own primary, he’s not talking about it anymore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, from the White House perspective, Linda Feldmann, there’s no point in even putting — trying to push this, this year?

LINDA FELDMANN: Right. I mean, they could — as John Cornyn pointed out today, they — why don’t they just introduce the bill? They have a majority of Democrats. But they can’t get to 60. They can’t break that filibuster.

Another possibility is maybe they do a lame-duck, do this in a lame-duck session after the November elections, when people aren’t quite so freaky about their reelection chances.

LINDA FELDMANN: But I’m not sure that even that is — is doable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a real possibility?

SUSAN PAGE: I think not. And I think it’s not just Republicans. There are some moderate Democrats from swing districts who are no more eager to take up a comprehensive immigration package than those Republicans are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, I want to come back to, what does the president really accomplish, though, by going out and making this speech at American University today? He — as you pointed out, it’s — it’s intended for people who supported him in the Latino community and others. But what does he get? Does this propel them to go up and — go out and vote Democratic in November?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think the White House would love if that happened.

But, you know, this — he has not previously given a speech that’s devoted to immigration during his presidency. That’s been disappointing for some of his staunchest supporters. His support among Hispanic voters has gone down since he was inaugurated.

But it’s still 57 percent in the Gallup poll. That’s higher than for the country as a whole. It’s higher than for Anglo voters. It’s important to — to many of these Hispanic voters and others that he show he remains committed to this issue. It seems — it’s hard to believe this is going to get done this year.

But you could see changes in the Republican Party, or you could see this being a second-term kind of issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I was going to ask. What is it thought that the prospects are next year?

LINDA FELDMANN: Well, it depends on what happens in November. If the Democrats lose control of either house of Congress, then forget it. They can set the agenda. If they maintain control, I think…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that right? Immigration is dead if Republicans take…

LINDA FELDMANN: I think so, if the Republicans take over. I just think that’s it, until the Democrats take over again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No — no concern on the part of Republicans that they’re seen as opposing this?

SUSAN PAGE: I think it’s possible that Republicans will take a softer position after the election. For one thing, they will be looking at a presidential race. It’s hard to get to 51 percent in this country if you have really alienated Hispanics, the nation’s largest — well, fastest-growing group.

Also, you have some Republican Hispanic candidates on the ballot in November, Marco Rubio, the Cuban American in the Florida Senate race. You have got Susana Martinez, who is a Latina running for governor in New Mexico. She would be the first Latina governor in the country if she wins.

And those voices may succeed in altering to some degree this very staunch Republican opposition we see now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Linda Feldmann, if you’re Latino or anybody in this country, and you care about this issue, what do you have to look forward to for the rest of this year on it?

LINDA FELDMANN: Well, you can — I guess you can just keep working for the issue. There have been demonstrations all over the country. You can make it clear to your member of Congress that you care about this issue.

But another thing, in terms of the Republican reaction, looking, you know, short-term, it’s probably the safe position as a Republican to not back it. But, long-term, look at what happened in California. You had Pete Wilson, who rode to reelection on the tough Proposition 187.

But that — that brought up a very strong Latino involvement in Democratic politics, and that has handed the state to Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But redound to the benefit of Democrats?

LINDA FELDMANN: Yes. So, long-term, it’s good for the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to keep watching it.

Linda Feldmann, Susan Page, thank you both.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

LINDA FELDMANN: Thank you.