EL PASO, May 11, 2011 (AFP) – President Barack Obama Tuesday predicted Republicans would seek to block his drive for immigration reform, in an apparent play for vital Hispanic votes in his 2012 reelection bid.
Obama made a moral and economic case for bringing 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows and putting them on a path to citizenship, in a major speech on the US-Mexico border.
And he mocked the Republican position on immigration, accusing party leaders of stepping away from the table to appease their conservative political base, in comments likely to draw ire from his opponents.
â€œWe have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,â€ Obama said, at the southern U.S. border in El Paso, Texas.
â€œEven though weâ€™ve answered these concerns, I have got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goalposts on us one more time.â€
â€œTheyâ€™ll say we need to triple the border patrol. Now they will say we will need to quadruple the border patrol. Or they will want a higher fence.
â€œMaybe theyâ€™ll need a moat. Maybe they will want alligators in the moat â€“ theyâ€™ll never be satisfied, and I understand that. Thatâ€™s politics.â€
Obamaâ€™s comments, in an outdoor rally which carried overtones of a campaign event, represented a new attempt to tackle an issue that has confounded US leaders for years: the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform foundered in former president George W. Bushâ€™s second term.
Immigration reform is an article of faith for Hispanic voters who are becoming an increasingly important demographic in presidential elections, and among whom Obamaâ€™s support has dipped.
But presidential aides insisted Obama was not simply making a political gambit, but honestly wanted the rest of the country to feel his urgency on the issue.
â€œItâ€™s easier for politicians to defer the problem until after the next election, and thereâ€™s always a next election,â€ Obama said.
â€œSo weâ€™ve seen a lot blame and politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric.â€
Obama argued that immigration was fundamental to Americaâ€™s economic wellbeing and that the country could not afford to train future entrepreneurs at U.S. colleges, then send them home to compete with U.S. firms.
â€œLook at Intel and Google and Yahoo and eBay â€“ these are great American companies that have created countless jobs and helped us lead the world in high-tech industries. Everyone was founded by an immigrant.
â€œWe donâ€™t want the next Intel or Google to be created in China or India. We want those companies and jobs to take root in America.â€
Obama unveiled what aides said was a â€œblueprintâ€ for immigration reform.
The approach would build on what the administration says is already significant progress in securing U.S. borders, enforcing existing laws and improving the immigration system.
The plan would redouble crackdowns on employers who hire illegal immigrants creating what Obama said was an underground economy that drives down wages for the middle class.
Illegal immigrants already in the United States meanwhile would have to learn English, get background checks, pay taxes and get in line to apply for legal status.
Prospects for any type of comprehensive reform passing the divided US Congress appear very poor, however.
Arizona senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, who was Obamaâ€™s 2008 Republican election foe, warned that people did not feel that the U.S.-Mexico border was secure, despite the administrationâ€™s pledges.
â€œUnfortunately, when President Obama was in the Senate, he actively worked to undermine the reform that he now seems to be advocating during election season,â€ the senators said in a statement.
â€œThis is not surprising considering he made the same evolution in 2008. Itâ€™s too bad he didnâ€™t choose to follow through on those promises after his election,â€ they said.
Republican congressman Peter King also rejected Obamaâ€™s approach.
â€œThe president has again called for amnesty for illegal immigrants without offering a single proposal to actually improve the security of our borders,â€ King said.
But Frank Sharry, executive director of Americaâ€™s Voice Education Fund, disputed the â€œconventional wisdomâ€ that Obama gave a purely political speech, saying the address was strong and showed leadership.
â€œMany in the political class believe that it was a campaign-oriented speech aimed at showing Latino voters he cares in the run up to 2012.
â€œI disagree. I believe it is a sincere effort to build support, attract unusual allies and create political space for an eventual legislative breakthrough.â€
Sharry admitted the prospects for reform in the current Congress were poor, and accused the Republican Party of tacking to the right â€“ but said Obamaâ€™s approach was exactly what would be needed in 2013, after next yearâ€™s election.