Obama To Lay Out Plan For Immigration Overhaul

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President Obama on Tuesday travels to El Paso, Texas, where he's expected to talk about immigration and his goals for legislation this year. The president is trying to push a plan that would include a path to legalizing undocumented workers.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

When President Obama gave an interview on "60 Minutes," he said the president must do more than one thing at a time, and today he tries to demonstrate that in El Paso. Amid negotiations over the budget, as well as the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death, the president will talk about immigration. He plans to lay out principles for an immigration overhaul.

President Bush's immigration efforts encountered opposition from his own party, and many Republicans are also likely to resist President Obama's efforts.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Immigration is back on President Obama's front burner. Today in El Paso, Texas, he'll continue his new push for immigration legislation, which began with a series of high profile meetings at the White House and a speech at the Miami Dade College commencement late last month.

President BARACK OBAMA: I strongly believe we should fix our broken immigration system.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

President OBAMA: Fix it so that it meets our 21st century economic and security needs. And I want to work with Democrats and Republicans, yes, to protect our borders and enforce our laws, and address the status of millions of undocumented workers.

LIASSON: After the last attempt at immigration legislation died in the lame duck session of Congress, Hispanic leaders took out their frustration on the White House. They wanted the president to do more to fulfill his campaign pledge to pass a bill, and now he is.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): I have to tell you, we're headed in the right direction. I'm more optimistic than I've been in recent memory.

LIASSON: That's Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez. He was among the dozens of people invited to the White House in recent weeks to talk about immigration. Along with Democratic members of Congress there were celebrities like Eva Longoria and Emilio Estefan. There were two Republicans, moderates Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The president is not only devoting more attention to immigration, he's also changing his approach to deportations. In an effort to prove it was tough on border security, the administration had substantially increased the number of deportations, angering Hispanic leaders. But now the White House has decided to move away from deporting college-age kids. The law that failed in the lame duck session - the Dream Act - would have allowed young people brought here illegally by their parents to get legal status if they were in college or the military.

Mr. Obama told a Univision town hall meeting that while he couldn't get the Dream Act through Congress, he does have the power to shift the emphasis of law enforcement away from young illegals.

President OBAMA: We have redesigned our enforcement practices under the law to make sure that we're focusing primarily on criminals. And so our deportation of criminals are up about 70 percent, our deportation of non-criminals are down, and that's because we want to focus our resources on those folks who are destructive to the community.

LIASSON: So the president has reassured his own base on this issue, but now he needs a bipartisan process in Congress, and on that score Gutierrez isn't optimistic.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: When we had a majority of 40 votes in the House and 10 in the Senate, we didn't do it and we couldn't do it even during the lame duck session. It's very unlikely we're going to do it now.

LIASSON: Republicans say they want to pass bills that would enhance border security - not legalize undocumented workers. But GOP strategist Marty Wilson thinks that's shortsighted. Wilson ran Carly Fiorina's Senate race in California, a race he says she lost because she didn't get enough Hispanic votes.

Mr. MARTY WILSON (GOP Consultant): The hard line approach on immigration, which is find them, arrest them and throw them out, is not going to work. You know, Latinos are a growing population. In a state like California, they're a growing political force, and unless we come up with a better way to talk about immigration, we're going to continue to way underperform, and that does not indicate that you're going to win many elections.

LIASSON: Wilson thinks Republicans should add a guest worker program to their border security bills - that would allow them to appear welcoming to Hispanics without angering their conservative base with talk of amnesty.

Mr. WILSON: It would be politically smart for the Republican to come up with an approach to immigration that while it may not go as far as the president would propose, would still come up with some meaningful reform and I think politically it would do the Republicans a lot of good.

LIASSON: Right now it's hard to imagine the two parties finding common ground on this issue, but the White House clearly hopes the president will win either way. If he can get some kind of immigration bill passed, he'll have fulfilled his promise to Hispanic voters. If he can't, he'll be able to argue that it was the Republicans who stopped him.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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