Obama Renews Push For Immigration Overhaul

In a speech at American University on Thursday, President Obama renewed his call for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. That means a bill that would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

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President Obama gave his first major speech as president on the controversial subject of immigration. This morning at American University, Mr. Obama renewed his call for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, meaning a bill that would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The president has been under pressure from Hispanic groups to demonstrate that he's doing more to fulfill the campaign promise he made to move immigration reform in his first year. He's had two back-to-back meetings at the White House this week - one with immigration advocates and another with Hispanic lawmakers. And then today at American University, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to fixing this problem.

President BARACK OBAMA: In sum, the system is broken and everybody knows it. 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.

LIASSON: It was a classic Obama speech. While he didn't roll out any new policies or proposals, he laid out the two extreme positions on the issue and then tried to find common ground between them. First he pushed back against the view of some in the immigration community that there should be blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Pres. OBAMA: And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable.

LIASSON: The president reiterated his position that accountability means undocumented workers should pay a fine, learn English and get to the back of the line for citizenship. He defended his administration's record on border security saying there were now more boots on the ground than ever before. Then he pushed back against the current Republican position of doing border security first before any other reforms.

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

LIASSON: But then Mr. Obama turned to the practical reality of passing immigration reform in the United States Senate.

Pres. 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. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality.

LIASSON: But Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said it was also a reality that nothing was stopping the Democrats from bringing up a bill now.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): So, I really don't know what to make out of the president's comments, given the fact that I doubt that Senator Harry Reid will make this a priority on the Senate's agenda between now and November. But I think the president was coming under some scrutiny and some heat from people who had relied upon his commitment during his campaign to make this a priority.

LIASSON: Hispanics are the fastest growing bloc of the electorate. President Obama won two-thirds of their votes in 2008. And while it's clear that both parties need to avoid alienating Hispanic voters in a national election, in the congressional elections coming up, the politics of immigration are a little more complicated.

This fall, the Democrats need to energize Hispanic voters, an important part of their base. And that's why it's important for the president to convince Hispanics that it's the Republican opposition, not his lack of effort that's holding up a bill.

But the Republican Party's base is overwhelmingly against any immigration fix that includes a path to legalization. So at least for this year, the GOP also risks little by opposing the president on this issue.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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