Obama asks Hispanic leaders to mobilize

President Obama called on hundreds of Latino religious leaders to mobilize their constituencies and push Congress to pass an immigration reform measure.

Obama’s comments Thursday morning at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast came amid a weeklong push by the administration to move the issue of immigration back to the forefront, despite the long odds for a comprehensive reform bill in the divided Congress.

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The president sounded a cautiously optimistic tone, telling the audience that progress might be slow. He said he was counting on religious and community leaders to drive members of Congress to take the lead on crafting an immigration bill. 

“That means changing minds [and] changing votes, one at a time,” he said of the uphill battle a comprehensive bill faces on Capitol Hill. 

“I know there are some folks who think I should bypass Congress. I can’t.

“But what I can do is sign a law. And what you can do is champion a law. What we can do together is make comprehensive immigration reform the law of the land,” Obama said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke earlier in the morning at the prayer breakfast, telling attendees he is “optimistic” Congress will pass an immigration reform bill before the 2012 elections. 

Schumer said he is committed to working with Republican lawmakers to reach a bipartisan agreement that would reform the country’s immigration system.

“As head of the Immigration subcommittee who believes passionately in this issue, I remain optimistic that we can pass immigration reform during this Congress,” said Schumer, who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

“I give you my word I will work day and night until we can make our joint vision a reality.”

But the Republican majority in the House has shown no interest in moving forward on such legislation, and a much more limited bill — the DREAM Act — that would have provided a path to legal residency for the children of illegal immigrants failed to pass the Senate last year even as Democrats enjoyed a broad majority in both chambers. 

The White House and Senate Democrats have been trumpeting the renewed push for immigration reform recently, partly in anticipation of the 2012 elections, when they hope to win the crucial Hispanic vote. Over the past month Obama has held several high-profile meetings with congressional leaders, Latino labor and business owners and Latino celebrities. 

But some in the Latino community have criticized his approach to the issue, saying he needs to take more of a leadership role and invite Republican leaders in the House and Senate to a joint discussion on immigration reform to try and find a middle ground. 

On Thursday, Obama referenced his speech in El Paso, Texas, earlier this week, when he stressed that the U.S.-Mexico border had been secured and that the immigration system needed to shift toward reforming the laws of the country.

Republicans object to Obama’s claims that the border is secure, saying that people, guns and drugs are still being heavily funneled across the southwest border. 

Schumer said there was no chance of passing a comprehensive Democratic or Republican bill, and that Congress needed to put politics aside. The senior New York senator also criticized people who use fear as a reason to avoid tackling the problems of illegal immigration in the country.

“Unlike those who attempt to fear-monger the issue, I am not at all concerned that people want to come to America,” said Schumer. “I’m more worried about a day when people don’t want to come to America. It’s the American immigrants who remind us on a daily basis that the American dream is alive and well, within the reach of anyone who is willing to work.

“We can’t pass a Democratic bill or a Republican bill. We have to pass a bipartisan bill to get this done. And no party should seek to take political advantage on this issue that’s vital to America. The tide is turning. Our grassroots efforts are working.”

For Schumer the essential elements of an immigration reform measure would include: securing the U.S.-Mexico border, ensuring that U.S. employers do not hire illegal immigrants, fixing the legal immigration process and providing people in the country illegally a path to citizenship.

Schumer was filling in for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who canceled his planned appearance.

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