Obama pushes for federal fix to immigration problems

Backs Calderon in condemning new Ariz. law

President Obama (right) and President Felipe Calderon of Mexico headed to the Oval Office after yesterday’s press conference. President Obama (right) and President Felipe Calderon of Mexico headed to the Oval Office after yesterday’s press conference. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)
By Ben Feller
Associated Press / May 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Confronting soaring frustration over illegal immigration, President Obama yesterday condemned Arizona’s crackdown and pushed instead for a federal fix the nation could embrace. He said that will never happen without Republican support, pleading: “I need some help.’’

In asking anew for an immigration overhaul, Obama showed solidarity with his guest of honor, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, who called Arizona’s law discriminatory and warned Mexico would reject any effort to “criminalize migration.’’ The United States and Mexico share a significant economic and political relationship that stands to be damaged the more the nations are at odds over immigration, which affects millions of people on both sides of the border.

Obama sought to show that he, too, is fed up with the government’s failure to fix a system widely seen as broken. He said that would require solving border security, employment, and citizenship issues all at once — the kind of effort that collapsed in Congress just three years ago.

The president’s stand underscored the forces working against him in this election year: the need for help from Republican critics, the impatience of states like Arizona after federal inaction, the pressure to show movement on a campaign promise, and the mood of the public disgusted by porous borders.

The Arizona law requires police to question people they have stopped for committing a crime or offense about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they’re in the country illegally, and it makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally.

The immigration questions may be asked of people once they have been stopped by police enforcing another law.

The law will take effect July 29 unless legal challenges are successful.

Almost twice as many people support the Arizona law as those who oppose it, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this month. It found that 42 percent favored it, 24 percent opposed it, and 29 percent said they were neutral.

Yet in a Rose Garden appearance with Calderon, Obama called the Arizona law “a misdirected expression of frustration.’’ He expects to announce soon what action his government may take about it, once the Justice Department finishes reviewing whether the law violates civil rights.

“In the United States of America, no law-abiding person — be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor, or tourist from Mexico — should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like,’’ Obama said.

Calderon was upbeat about finally finding a fair, dignified way of dealing with migrants. He said: “Many of them, despite their significant contribution to the economy and to the society of the United States, still live in the shadows, and occasionally, as in Arizona, they even face discrimination.’’

The immigration theme dominated a day of pageantry and showy support for Calderon, who enjoyed a state visit with his wife, Margarita Zavala.

The Mexican president was treated to a grand welcome on the South Lawn in the morning. Last night, 200 guests were invited for a state dinner in the East Room followed by entertainment back on the lawn under cover of an enormous tent. Obama repeatedly offered US support for Calderon’s government, particularly in his aggressive fight against drug traffickers, a violent battle that has left roughly 23,000 people dead since the end of 2006.

On immigration, Obama’s criticism of the Arizona law is easier than the fix he wants: getting his own party and Republicans to pass an immigration overhaul.

His plan calls improving border security, ensuring employers are held accountable if they try to hire undocumented workers or break other laws, and assigning a series of responsibilities on the millions of people living in the United States illegally. Those include requiring them to pay a penalty and back taxes, learn English, and get in line toward becoming a legal resident and citizen of the country.

Republican President George W. Bush tried to get that the kind of package through Congress in his second term, once confidently telling reporters: “I’ll see you at the bill signing.’’ He never did.

The effort collapsed on Capitol Hill in 2007, as critics charged that the measure amounted to amnesty for lawbreakers.

This time around, Obama said: “I’m actually confident that we can get it done.’’

But in a political tutorial on the path ahead, Obama said he did not have the 60 votes he needs in the Senate to overcome vote-killing stall tactics.

Democrats and independents hold 59 Senate seats. Obama said he will seek the Republican support he needs.

“It’s my job to work with members of Congress to see that happen,’’ the president said.

Calderon will have a chance to make his case directly to US lawmakers today.