Obama Asks Congress To Pass Immigration Reform

President Obama spoke on immigration policy in El Paso, Texas. Obama tried to reboot his effort to overhaul the immigration system. The president called on Congress to try again to pass a bill that would make the border more secure and also provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Mara Liasson for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, President Obama tried to reboot his effort to overhaul the country's immigration system. He did so with a speech at the Chamizal National Memorial on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas.

President BARACK OBAMA: Everybody recognizes the system is broken. The question is: Will we finally summon the political will to do something about it? And that's why we're here at the border today.

BLOCK: The president called on Congress to try again to pass a bill that would make the border more secure and also provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

For more, we're joined by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And, Mara, first, how did the president make his case today?

MARA LIASSON: Well, the president made his case, first and foremost, by saying that immigration reform is good for the economy and it's a way to strengthen the middle class, because if you do immigration reform, you get rid of a massive underground economy that exploits cheap labor and depresses wages for everyone else. So he said it's an economic imperative to do an immigration overhaul.

BLOCK: Now, those are the broad goals, but what about specifics, Mara? Did the president make clear what he wants in an immigration overhaul bill?

LIASSON: Yes, he made it very clear. And these are very familiar principles, and they're not too different from the ones that George W. Bush had when he tried and failed to pass immigration reform.

First of all, border security, and we'll hear more about that from Ted Robbins in a minute. Second, he wants to hold businesses accountable if they hire illegal workers. Maybe that means some kind of E-Verify, some kind of a worker identification system. And the third principle is that undocumented workers have to admit they broke the law, pay back taxes, pay a fine, learn English and then go to the back of the line for legalization. This, of course, is the biggest sticking point of all because it's what opponents call amnesty.

BLOCK: Yeah. Mara, what about the issue of deportations? The president has increased the number of deportations, and Hispanic leaders are not happy about that.

LIASSON: No, they're not. He has deported more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in each of the last two years. That's more than President Bush did.

This issue really puts the president in a political bind, because increasing the number of deportations is a way he can show Republicans that he's being tough on border security. But leaders in the Hispanic community, which is a very important constituency for the president, want him to stop deportations, especially of DREAM Act kids. That is college-age kids, brought here as children, who would have been eligible for legalization under the DREAM Act, if they were in college or in the military. The DREAM Act, of course, failed in Congress last year. Here's what the president said.

Pres. OBAMA: And we are deporting those who are here illegally, and that's a tough issue. It's a source of controversy. But I want to emphasize, we're not doing it haphazardly. We're focusing our limited resources and people on violent offenders, and people convicted of crimes, not just families, not just folks who are looking to scrape together an income.

LIASSON: So while the president said he can't just issue an executive order to stop deporting college-age kids, which is what some Hispanic leaders have been demanding, he is trying to shift the emphasis of law enforcement.

BLOCK: Mara, we heard the president, at the outset, talk about summoning the political will to fix the immigration system. What are the chances that Congress will act on immigration?

LIASSON: No one that I talked to thinks the chances are very high. Republicans are under a lot of pressure. The business community wants an immigration bill, but the grassroots base doesn't; they think it's amnesty.

And it's possible - and the president even suggested this today in his speech - that even if you can't get a big immigration overhaul bill, maybe you can get a down payment, maybe you could get a tougher DREAM Act and some visa reform that could get something done.

But the politics of this are very complicated, especially for the Republicans. And if immigration reform were a stock, it would be selling very cheaply right now.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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