By Jordy Yager and Sam Youngman - 05/10/11 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama said Tuesday that he has “gone above and beyond” Republican demands on border security and that those on the other side of the aisle should come to the table on comprehensive immigration reform.
In a major speech in El Paso, Texas, the president dived headlong into the immigration fight, urging the audience to pressure Congress to take action despite seemingly long odds that such major legislation will pass heading into a presidential election year.
“Maybe they’ll say we need a moat,” Obama said. “Or alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied, and I understand that. That’s politics.”
Obama also addressed his critics on the left, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who want him to use his executive power as president to halt some deportations.
“I know some would wish that I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself,” Obama said. “But that’s not how democracy works. What we really need to do is keep up the fight to pass reform. That’s the ultimate solution to this problem.”
But Republicans immediately shot back, criticizing the president’s speech and saying that Obama was “in full campaign mode.”
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that the U.S.-Mexico border was not secure and that the Obama administration is to blame.
“It is ironic that President Obama would travel so close to the border and still be so far from reality,” said Smith. “It is clear President Obama is in full campaign mode, but his words do not match his record. He continues to ignore the facts.
“Our immigration system is broken because the Obama administration has refused to fully enforce the immigration laws already on the books,” Smith said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) took a swipe at Obama for not dedicating time to address the natural disaster facing many Texans.
Cornyn said he and Texas’s other senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), had invited Obama to take time out from speeches and fundraisers and join them for a look at some of the 2.5 million acres of Texas ravaged by wildfires.
“We’re disappointed that he has turned down our invitation to learn more about this,” Cornyn said.
Regarding immigration reform, Cornyn said Obama was not providing leadership.
“Here we go again, another speech, another meeting and no leadership from the president on immigration reform,” Cornyn said.
White House officials told reporters earlier this week that the administration’s renewed push for an immigration bill was not merely a political move attempting to paint Congress as the inhibitor and the White House as the doer in the eyes of Latino voters ahead of the 2012 elections.
The president, acknowledging the hot-button nature of the issue, said on Tuesday that “when an issue is this complex, when it raises such strong feelings, it’s easier for politicians to defer the problem until after the next election.”
“And there’s always a next election,” Obama said. “So we’ve seen a lot of blame and a lot of politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric around immigration.”
The president said that since 2006, when then-President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were leading the charge for reform, Republicans have called only for increased border security.
Obama outlined steps his administration has taken to secure the border, including adding 20,000 agents there, authorizing unmanned aerial drone flights over the border and completing the fence begun by Bush.
“So, we have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” Obama said. “But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goalposts one more time.”
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, vehemently objected to Obama’s assertions and declared the border insecure.
“After nearly two and a half years in office, President Obama has yet to present the American people with a comprehensive plan for securing the border against illegal immigration,” King said. “Our border is definitely not secure … the time has come for real action, not words.”
Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, conceded that some progress had been made to secure the border, but not enough to spur reform efforts.
“I don’t think that immigration reform will really have momentum here on Capitol Hill until such time as we feel more confident about securing our borders,” Miller said. “That has to be our first and foremost priority and responsibility.”
The Department of Homeland Security is currently revamping the way statistics are calculated and analyzed. Law enforcement and administration officials have consistently complained that the measurement indexes did not take all security factors into account.
The president outlined what he considers the moral and economic imperatives of pushing for reform.
He acknowledged that the demise of the DREAM Act in the Senate last Congress — legislation would provide a pathway to legal residency for the children of illegal immigrants — was “a tremendous disappointment.” He said lawmakers got “so close” only to see “politics get in the way.”
Despite almost universal skepticism in Washington that reform can get done with Obama running for reelection, the president pledged Tuesday to do his “part to lead a constructive and civil debate on these issues.”
“The question is whether those in Congress who previously walked away in the name of enforcement are now ready to come back to the table and finish the work we’ve started,” Obama said.
This story was originally posted at 6:00 a.m. and was updated at 7:26 p.m.