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MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
President Obama took time off from his health care campaign today to address another big controversial issue: immigration. He met with two senators who were trying to craft a bipartisan compromise, one that would strengthen border security and provide a path to legalization for immigrants who are already in the country illegally. The meeting comes less than two weeks before immigrant rights activists plan to march on Washington to draw attention to their cause.
But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the White House has been so far reluctant to put the issue on the front burner.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Aides say President Obama's commitment to immigration overhaul is unwavering, even though he gave the issue only a brief mention toward the end of his State of the Union speech.
President BARACK OBAMA: And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders and enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.
HORSLEY: Merely continuing the work of fixing immigration isn't good enough, though, for immigrant advocates like Angelica Salas. She and others met with the president for more than an hour this afternoon.
Ms. ANGELICA SALAS (Executive Director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles): We're waiting for him to show us results. We believe that his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is real, but we also know that we want results and so that's what we're going to be expecting within the next couple of weeks.
HORSLEY: In particular, advocates want to see an outline of immigration legislation before March 21st. Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza says that's when thousands of demonstrators plan to march on Washington to show their support for immigration overhaul.
Ms. CLARISSA MARTINEZ (National Council of La Raza): American voters across the nation are frustrated with inaction and the fact that many, many communities across the country are coming to Washington to make sure that people know we'll have their back, but we'll also have them accountable.
HORSLEY: After meeting with the activists, Mr. Obama sat down with Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to get an update on their effort to craft a bipartisan immigration bill. David Tichenor, who studies the politics of immigration reform at the University of Oregon, says those efforts haven't gotten very far. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: His correct name is Daniel Tichenor.]
Professor DANIEL TICHENOR (University of Oregon): The good news, I suppose, is that President Obama has found a Republican to co-sponsor legislation. The bad news is that Lindsey Graham hasn't found a single other Republican in the Senate to join him.
HORSLEY: Tichenor says the fault lines on immigration cut across party lines. There are Democrats and Republicans who are skeptical of reform, even though both Mr. Obama and his Republican rival John McCain supported it. What's more, Tichenor says, neither party can afford to ignore the fast-growing Latino vote.
Mr. TICHENOR: The Latino vote on this is huge. And it may, in fact, be that the White House is urging some action on this, even if they think it may be a tall order to actually achieve the legislation this year, in part, to signal to Latino voters that they want to try to get this done.
HORSLEY: But President Bush also tried and failed to get immigration reform done. A planned path to citizenship for illegal immigrants was denounced by Republicans and some Democrats as amnesty for lawbreakers. That was when the unemployment rate was under five percent. Doris Meissner, who led the immigration service during the Clinton administration says a comprehensive fix could be even more difficult now.
Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Former Immigration Commissioner, Clinton Administration): Theoretically it's the right time to do it because illegal immigration has slowed, but when Americans are hurting, it's very hard for Americans to be generous about an issue like immigration.
HORSLEY: Meissner says the president's position has been consistent. He supports immigration reform, but it's not a top priority like health care or financial reform.
Ms. MEISSNER: By the time those higher priorities are met or might be met, it's pretty hard to find time on the Senate calendar this year to imagine an immigration bill.
HORSLEY: The president talked about those challenges today in his meeting with immigration advocates. Their message for him is that talking isn't enough.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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