WASHINGTON - Hoping to breathe new life into the stalled immigration effort, President Barack Obama yesterday blamed the delay on recalcitrant Republicans who he said had given in to the "pressures of partisanship and election-year politics." Republicans responded that Obama's first step going forward must be to secure the border.
In his first immigration speech, Obama took Republicans to task, in particular 11 GOP senators who had backed attempts during the previous Republican administration to tighten the immigration system. He did not call out anyone by name.
Obama dismissed the focus on a "border security first" approach, saying the system is too big to be fixed "only with fences and border patrols." He advocated a comprehensive approach that would call on the government, businesses and illegal immigrants themselves to live up to their responsibilities within the law.
Obama also wants to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States; critics call it amnesty. But Obama said the immigrants must first acknowledge that they broke the law, pay fines and back taxes, perform community service and learn English.
Without setting a timeline, Obama questioned whether the political will exists to get a bill through Congress.
"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes," he said. "That is the political and mathematical reality." In the Senate, Democrats fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP delaying tactics.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama would get the bipartisan support he wants "if he would take amnesty off the table and make a real commitment to border and interior security."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is in a tight re-election race and could benefit politically from enacting a broad overhaul, said he was committed to passing a bill this year.
Many immigrant advocates praised the president's comments. They had been pressing him for some time to give such as a speech - although it broke no new ground - as a demonstration of his commitment to an issue he promised would be a priority his first year in office.
But an organization of Hispanic conservatives criticized the speech as a "sheer political move" to keep them on board for the November elections. Obama was elected with strong backing from Hispanics, and they could tip the balance in several tight races this year.