WASHINGTON — The last time President Barack Obama delivered a speech focused on immigration was more than three months ago. The one before that occurred when there was still snow on the ground.
This week, he answered a handful of questions about immigration during an appearance before a select audience on the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo. But since kicking off his second term, he’s given only three speeches reaching out to a broad audience about one of his top priorities – a massive rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws that would increase enforcement while providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Instead of using the bully pulpit to press for an immigration overhaul the way he has pushed for a number of other issues – including the use of military force in Syria and legislation to curb gun violence – Obama has embarked on a mostly quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy in the hopes his involvement will not antagonize Republican lawmakers who are crucial to passing any proposal.
Allies who have been pushing for the long-sought legislation advised Obama to take a step back on the issue – at least publicly – and are relieved he listened. Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that seeks a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, called the strategy smart.
Critics who oppose the legislation say they understand why Obama is taking this approach – and hope it backfires. Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that examines the consequences of immigration on the United States, said a bill only has a chance if Obama stays away from Republicans.
“He’s poison,” he said. “Most Republicans sense it’s disaster for them. You have to trick them into thinking it’s good for them politically.”
The Democratic-controlled Senate passed the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation in June, but the Republican-led House of Representatives will not consider the bill, which provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, until the borders are secure.
For months, a slew of other issues have consumed Washington – chemical weapons in Syria, the federal government’s vast surveillance programs, and just this week, a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard – threatening to put the issue of immigration on the backburner.
But supporters of an overhaul are still trying to pressure lawmakers to support legislation that allows a pathway to citizenship. This week, undocumented immigrants chained themselves to the gates outside the White House while business executives gathered in Washington. In the last several weeks, some House Republicans have announced they support the concept, though not nearly enough to ensure passage.
White House officials say immigration remains one of Obama’s top priorities – even if Americans don’t see his efforts – and they won’t let other issues become a distraction.
“The president has been and will continue to be engaged,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “The president and his team are working on this issue every day. It is obviously a priority.”
It’s no secret Republican lawmakers – and sometimes even Democrats – bristle when Obama tries to publicly dictate what they should do. Or even make recommendations.
Congress rejected Obama’s proposals to reduce gun violence following the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., even after he and Vice President Joe Biden gave more than 30 speeches, interviews and online chats. And it was poised to do the same for his request for authorization to strike Syria after two dozen briefings with nearly 500 members of Congress when Russia helped the United States find a potential diplomatic solution.
“The challenge here is to get Republican members on board as we shape the solution,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of a handful of senators who helped craft an immigration deal in his chamber. “And so we want to be very careful that we have the president’s participation but these members, these Republican House members . . . do not feel that they have been unduly pressured by the president of the United States. So I think the president is walking a careful line here, and I think it’s the appropriate one.”
Obama kicked off his immigration push in late January with a nationally televised speech at a Las Vegas high school. He devoted speeches to immigration again in March at a naturalization ceremony and in June at the White House just before the Senate voted.
But mostly he has been meeting behind closed doors with groups on differing sides of the issue to ease their concerns about specific aspects of proposals and to gently push for the legislation that he hopes will be part of the legacy he leaves behind when he departs the White House in 2017.
He has met with CEOs of businesses, religious leaders and, of course, immigrants in a series of meetings at the White House. Biden joined him when he met with family members of illegal immigrants and young people, brought to the country illegally by parents, who later sought to go to college. He dropped by a meeting of the Nuns on a Bus, a Roman Catholic group touring the nation by bus pushing for immigration legislation, among other issues. And he talked up the issue on the nation’s biggest Spanish-language TV networks, Univision and Telemundo, a vast and politically powerful audience that flies under the radar for much of America.
“We’ve got a bill that passed with bipartisan support, strong bipartisan support in the Senate,” Obama said this week on Telemundo. “You’ve got a president who says that this is a number-one priority and he can’t wait to sign a comprehensive immigration reform bill. You’ve got the majority of the American people who are committed to immigration reform and support a pathway to citizenship for those who don’t have it.”
Obama’s strategy differs from his first term, when the White House drafted its own bills and he delivered a series of speeches on immigration. This time, the White House has largely left the specific negotiations to lawmakers.
“On the one hand, he set deadlines and let America know how important it is to get immigration reform done,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., another of the senators, known as the Group of Eight, who helped craft a Senate immigration deal. “On the other, he’s given us our space and let our Senate Group of Eight . . . put together a bill and try to get it passed with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I believe that he will continue to let the details be worked out by Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate.”
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