Obama To Lay Groundwork For Immigration Debate

President Obama meets at the White House Thursday with supporters and opponents of changes to the nation's immigration system. Aides say the president hopes to start a formal debate on immigration later this year.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

President Obama's dipping a toe into some treacherous waters - immigration policy. He's invited a small group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers to the White House to talk about the issue. Aides say Mr. Obama hopes to start a formal debate on immigration later this year, but the White House is deliberately keeping their expectations in check, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama won applause from a Latino group last week when he said he's committed to passing what he called comprehensive immigration reform. Speaking at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama said that reform should include both tighter security at the nation's borders and the path to legalize millions of undocumented workers who've already put down roots here.

President BARACK OBAMA: For those who wish to become citizens we should require them to pay a penalty and pay taxes, learn English, go to the back of the line behind those who played by the rules. That is the fair, practical and promising way forward. And that's what I'm committed to passing as president of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama made similar promises during the presidential race and he carried Latino voters in November by a two to one margin. Late last week, though, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs bluntly acknowledged the President's pledge is not ready to be put to the test.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): We know the votes aren't there right now.

HORSLEY: Indeed. The comprehensive plan outlined by Mr. Obama sounds much like those that died in Congress in 2006 and again in 2007 when opponents railed against what they called amnesty. Gibbs suggested the political atmosphere for immigration reform hasn't improved much since then.

Mr. GIBBS: I mean, obviously, look, if you put up just what was out there we're going to have to look through that and other ideas.

HORSLEY: Gibbs did not say what sweeteners might be added to boost support for an immigration bill, but the president's guest list today includes lawmakers who've favored and opposed a path to citizenship in the past.

California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration, says she hopes the meeting will serve as step one.

Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California): I do think that with presidential leadership we have unique opportunity to move forward. I think if you look at the polling data, by very large margins the American public is ready to resolve this and move on.

HORSLEY: Indeed. A survey this spring by the Pew Research Center found 63 percent of Americans favor a path towards citizenship for illegal immigrants. But as Pew President Andrew Kohut notes, support was almost that strong two years ago when reform died no Capitol Hill.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): I remember listening to President Bush saying he was appealing to the moderate majority of Americans on this issue. And there really was a moderate majority. And I think the problem from Bush's point of view and from this issue's point of view is the moderates are quieter than the opponents.

HORSLEY: Opponents have already been bombarding the White House and lawmakers with messages warning that allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country would depress wages and contribute to overpopulation.

While the president has not shied away from other battles over health care or energy policy, for example, he's appeared content to let this one simmer. Immigration advocate Jaime Soto, the Catholic bishop of Sacramento, calls today's twice postponed meeting a moment of truth to see just how serious about immigration Mr. Obama is.

Bishop JAIME SOTO (Immigration advocate): What I'm afraid of is the tendency to want to put this off into the future and in a certain sense kind of the manana syndrome. And what I want to hear is that they are ready to engage this issue and to move it now.

HORSLEY: White House spokesman Gibbs insists the president is serious about pursuing immigration reform. But he won't be pinned down about timing, whether it's manana, later in the fall or sometime next year.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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White House Hosts Meeting on Immigration

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks at a June 2007 candidates forum on immigration i i

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks during a June 2007 candidates forum at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Immigrant advocates say the strong Latino vote for Obama last fall makes it more important that he address the issue. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks at a June 2007 candidates forum on immigration

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks during a June 2007 candidates forum at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Immigrant advocates say the strong Latino vote for Obama last fall makes it more important that he address the issue.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After two delays and months of hand-wringing among immigrant advocates, President Obama finally meets with members of Congress Thursday to take up the thorny issue of immigration.

During the campaign Obama pledged a sweeping overhaul in his first year in office. But so far the issue has been pushed off for other priorities, and expectations remain low.

"It's like the opening whistle, and it means that the debate is under way in a very serious manner," says Angela Kelly of the Center for American Progress.

Kelly has spent years lobbying Congress to revamp immigration laws, and she is heartened that Obama has repeatedly expressed support, not only for stepped-up security at the border and workplace but also for a highly contentious plan to legalize some 12 million undocumented immigrants. If he hasn't shown the same urgency as with, say, health care, Kelly is still hopeful.

"You know there's no grave disappointment on my end yet," she says. "But on the other hand, the clock is ticking and we need to move forward. And the fact is, there isn't any other viable option on the table."

Both Sides Represented

That's true, but it's also not clear that Obama's vision for overhaul is politically viable. Thursday's meeting will include some lawmakers who are dead set against any legalization, and Roy Beck, of the restrictionist group Numbers USA, believes this could be a good sign.

"By having strong senators and congressmen on the other side of this issue," Beck says, Obama "will be able to say, 'Hey, look, see how hard this is going to be? See how far apart we are?' "

On the other hand, Beck wonders if including both sides means that Obama is really serious about changes in immigration policy, since winning over Republicans is the only way it will happen. Immigrant advocates say the strong Latino vote for Obama last fall also makes it more important that he address the issue. Still, given that new immigration plans failed twice in Congress in recent years, Beck says the safe bet is that the president won't press for much anytime soon.

"He's trying hard to be kind to this lobby, but they're asking him to sort of commit political suicide," Beck says. "And they're saying unless you commit political suicide — 'we're not going to vote for you next time.' Well, that's crazy."

Still An Important Issue In Some Areas

If immigration has receded as an issue on Capitol Hill, it hasn't in parts of the country that have seen an influx of illegal migrants in recent years. Christine Neumann-Ortiz heads Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant advocacy group in Wisconsin, and says the delay in tackling the issue is "tragic."

Neumann-Ortiz estimates 30,000 people marched on May 1 in Milwaukee to demand driver's licenses for the undocumented and in-state tuition for students whose parents brought them to the U.S. without visas. Her group also helps those arrested when immigration agents raid their homes.

"Frankly," she says, "under the Obama administration there's no change in terms of the rate of people who come to us seeking help."

Kelly at the Center for American Progress says the myriad problems of the nation's broken immigration system aren't going away.

She hopes the White House and Congress get serious about them at Thursday's meeting, but if not, she's certain they'll have to at some point.

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