WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday once again urged Congress to tackle comprehensive legislation to overhaul immigration law, citing the urgency of Arizona passing its own punitive statute in the absence of federal action.
"Time and time again the issue has been used to divide and inflame and demonize people," Obama said in a speech at American University in Washington. "The natural impulse among those who run for office is to turn away and defer this question for another day, another year or another administration."
Congress appears to be on course to do just that, because many lawmakers are reluctant to deal with such a hot-button issue on the eve of congressional elections in November.
"Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling, and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics," the president said.
Despite the poor outlook for action, Obama and Democrats are trying to show increasingly impatient Hispanic leaders and voters — who solidly backed Obama in 2008 — that they're on their side.
The president had vowed to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill if elected, but Congress didn't deal with the issue last year. There's no consensus on any bill that could command a majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives in this election year.
"We can hold elected officials accountable on this, and we intend to do so. There will be consequences for those blocking (an immigration bill) and those who sit on the sidelines," said Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic rights organization.
Obama's speech, his first major address on immigration since he was elected, offered no new specifics and no timetable or deadline for enacting a bill.
Instead, the president laid out a vision that he's outlined before: Secure the nation's borders and provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who already are in the United States that would require them to register, pay a fine and learn English.
States are stepping into the void created by federal inaction, Obama said, to craft immigration laws such as the one Arizona passed in April, which gives local officials broad power to detain anyone under "reasonable suspicion" of being an illegal immigrant.
"The question now is whether we will have the courage and the political will to pass a bill through Congress, to finally get it done," the president said. "I'm ready to move forward, the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward. But the fact is that without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem."
Despite a statement Thursday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that he's committed to passing a comprehensive immigration bill this year, the odds of that happening are slim to none.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had been the only Republican senator who was dealing with Senate Democrats on immigration, but he pulled back after Congress passed its health care overhaul.
"There is just not the appetite — on either side of the aisle — for this issue right now, and until we take steps to help secure the border, that dynamic is unlikely to change," said Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman. "Senator Graham believes there are 80 votes for a border security bill this year, and that is where we should focus our efforts. Congressional passage of border security this year helps build support for comprehensive reform in the future."
In the House, the Democratic leadership has said that if an immigration bill is to be done this year, the Senate must move first. House Democrats have said privately that they've taken enough controversial votes — from stimulus legislation to the health care bill — in a difficult election year.
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