White House turns its focus to immigration

President Obama is hoping on Thursday morning to kick-start a bipartisan effort that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, even though his administration concedes that it’s facing an uphill battle.

Obama will meet with an undisclosed list of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle at the White House on Friday “to figure out how best to move forward and ultimately pass comprehensive immigration reform into law,” Gibbs said.

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But Gibbs admitted last Friday that “the votes aren’t there right now.”

“I think there’s a seriousness in [the] effort, but an understanding that in 2005 and 2006 and even in 2007 there was not a majority yet to do this,” Gibbs said last week.

President Bush twice tried to work with Congress to pass sweeping legislation that would legalize many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, but failed both times.

While Obama has promised to tackle the issue, he spoke sparingly about it during the campaign and focused instead on other priorities, such as fixing the economy, revamping the healthcare system and ending the war in Iraq.

The Obama White House is stressing that Thursday’s meeting is the beginning of a process, similar to the one the administration has taken so far with healthcare and climate change legislation. The strategy is to identify the concerns of the opposition, identify the areas of agreement and then produce a set of goals.

Obama is hoping to get some help from the man he defeated last November. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who co-sponsored the 2006 immigration legislation with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that passed the Senate but was never taken up by the House, will attend the meeting, his office confirmed.

Gibbs noted Wednesday that the president has already started to engage members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) on the matter.

The White House appears to have backed off its originally stated goal of passing reform this year — Thursday’s meeting was rescheduled twice — but officials are pushing back on the idea that the president isn’t moving forward on the issue.

“The president has consistently said that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed; he supports comprehensive immigration reform and he wants to start the discussion this year,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Wednesday. “The meeting is intended to launch a policy conversation, with the hope of beginning the debate in earnest later this year.”

Despite the challenging congressional math and scars some still feel from the last time the debate reached a fever pitch, a number of activists are still hopeful that a bill can be passed and signed this year.

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said Wednesday that the meeting “will tell us whether the administration is serious” about getting reform done this year or whether it is “getting timid and abandoning the commitments that it made during the campaign.”

Soto and other advocates, talking to reporters on a conference call hosted by the National Immigration Forum, called the meeting “a critical moment of truth for immigration.”

Mark Lauritsen, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said the labor organization and others have grown impatient with the promises of the White House and congressional leaders in the past.

“Our members, like the rest of the labor movement, they expect action, and they expect action now,” Lauritsen said.

Soto echoed that concern, noting that many immigration reform activists have grown weary of the “mañana syndrome” — the Spanish word for “tomorrow.”

“What I’m afraid of is the tendency to kind of put this off,” Soto said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, dismissed concerns that there are not enough votes to get something done this year, noting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has given assurances that the biggest problem he faces is finding floor time to devote to the issue.

“When it comes to things like counting votes in the U.S. Congress, we tend to look to people like Harry Reid instead of, with all due respect, Robert Gibbs,” Sharry said.

What his and other groups are looking for from the White House, Sharry said, is “sufficient presidential leadership” that will create “the political momentum and will to get this done.”

Even though the White House would not release the list of members attending the meeting, officials have insisted that both Democrats and Republicans will be there and that opponents of what has been proposed in the past will be heard.

Activists like Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of Immigration Works USA, welcomed the bipartisan involvement.

“This is going to take Republicans as well as Democrats,” Jacoby said.