In his first major speech on the issue since taking office, President Obama said Thursday that the U.S. immigration system "offends our most basic American values" and blamed Republican opposition for thwarting crucially needed change.
FOR THE RECORD:
Obama and immigration: An article in Friday's Section A about President Obama's call to revamp immigration policy said a new Arizona law allows police to question those they suspect of being illegal immigrants after making an unlawful stop. Police are required to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally only after they have lawfully stopped, detained or arrested them. —
It was the third time in as many days that Obama singled out Republicans as an obstructionist force, blaming them in his earlier appearances for defending oil giant BP in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast oil spill and for opposing stronger financial regulatory legislation.
The president's remarks this week represented the clearest preview yet of the message the White House intends to highlight in this year's midterm election: Republicans' stubborn refusal to help solve national problems.
The theme appeared to galvanize many supporters of immigration legislation who were in the audience at American University for Obama's speech Thursday.
"I think it was a clarion call," said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "He implied, 'The ball is in your court.'"
Republicans shot back with a sizzling critique of the president's position, dismissing Obama's argument that the U.S.-Mexican border was more secure now than in years.
"Half a million people still illegally enter our country today, most through Arizona, and his administration has yet to lay out a strategy on how it intends to bring it under control," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
The immigration debate has been fueled by passage of an Arizona law that allows police to question those they suspect of being illegal immigrants after making an unlawful stop. The Obama administration is expected to announce soon that it will file a legal challenge to that law.
Speaking to religious and political activists Thursday, Obama recalled congressional steps toward immigration-restructuring under President George W. Bush, when a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers supported a comprehensive solution.
"Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling," Obama said. "Now, under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics, many of the 11 Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support."
Nonetheless, Obama offered no new solutions, timetables or points of compromise. Instead, he outlined a longstanding prescription for change that, in addition to having no support from Republicans in Congress, also has failed to unite his fellow Democrats.
Some activists had asked the president to speak at Ellis Island, the historical New York entry port, on the Fourth of July. But Obama chose to deliver his immigration address ahead of the Independence Day weekend and before a crowd at American University.
In that sense, it was an innately political speech, aimed via television at a Latino and Democratic audience vital to the Democratic strategy in this fall's elections.
"Latinos are a key part of the equation," Eliseo Medina, international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said after the address. "We're going to make a difference in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, California and Florida. So in many ways, the Republicans are playing with fire. Hopefully they'll get that message."
Some immigration advocates who have criticized Obama in the past for not treating the immigration issue with sufficient urgency said they were happy Thursday to see him devote a national speech to the subject, even if he made no commitment to pass a bill this year.
"This is the beginning of a new phase in this debate," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a think tank, who was in the American University audience. "The Republican Party's position now is untenable and unsustainable."
The address came close on the heels of comments by Obama in Wisconsin this week in which he called out a House lawmaker who apologized to BP executives for pressure being exerted by the White House.
The president also criticized House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio for saying administration-backed financial regulatory legislation aimed at Wall Street practices was like using a nuclear weapon to kill an ant.
During a White House meeting with Latino activists this week, Obama blamed Republicans for the presence of 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., participants said, foreshadowing the Thursday speech.
Obama's address was closely watched across the country. In Los Angeles, about two dozen workers, students and advocates gathered at a community center to listen. As the president spoke, a low hum of interpretation followed his words.
Olga Gonzalez, 42, said she was frustrated that an overhaul bill hadn't been enacted yet and was skeptical that that would happen in 2010.
"He said in his first year he would do it and he didn't," she said. "Now the November elections are coming."
An illegal immigrant with four U.S. citizen children, Gonzalez said she worried every day about being arrested by immigration agents and separated from her family. About three months ago, she took in two American children of a friend who was deported.
"Every day, they ask, 'When is my mommy coming back?'" she said.
But Myrna Ortiz, a UCLA student and illegal immigrant, said she was inspired by the speech and had hopes that it would help kick-start the political process.
Ortiz, 19, said her undocumented status had affected her education, her job prospects and her healthcare. Her parents are also illegal immigrants, and she has a younger sister who is a U.S. citizen.
"We are going to keep pushing," Ortiz said. "If we don't push for it, it's not going to happen."
Times staff writer Anna Gorman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.