Obama drops by immigration meeting, promises reform

Advocates for creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants pushed Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to be a more forceful voice on the issue at a White House meeting Thursday.

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But despite the low-key approach by Napolitano and others in the administration on the issue so far, advocates took heart when President Barack Obama made an unscheduled visit to the meeting and reiterated his support of pushing through a comprehensive immigration package this Congress.

Obama urged leaders to work together in order to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Advocates took the presidential visit as a sign of the administration’s commitment to the issue.

“It shows the president is committed to fixing the country’s immigration system. He is committed to moving forward and that he needs our help,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “He said ‘The American people want to see change.’”

“The president understands our nation’s immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, and that’s why he asked Secretary Napolitano to work with stakeholders and members of Congress to move the legislative process forward on this important issue,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. “The president has consistently said we would begin work on comprehensive immigration reform this year, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Napolitano has drawn criticism from the groups because she “hasn’t been speaking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform as much as she has been speaking about the need to enforce current laws,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that favors providing a way for illegal immigrants to stay in the country and become citizens.

“What we hope comes out of this meeting as a concrete result is Janet Napolitano lifting her profile and explaining to Congress and to the American people is the way to stop illegal immigration is to pass immigration reform.”

Napolitano, who as Arizona’s governor gained a national reputation on the issue by signing into law that penalized businesses who were found to have hired illegal immigrants, said at the meeting that she realizes she needs to be a more vocal advocate for reform, according to several attendees.

“She said she got the message,” Sharry said. “We will evaluate it on what she does over the next few weeks, not what she said at a White House meeting.”

A broad spectrum of interests were represented at the meeting, which included officials from the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the International Chiefs of Police as well as huge corporations such as McDonalds and Microsoft. Nearly 100 different leaders were in attendance at the meeting that was hosted by Napolitano and moderated by several White House aides, including Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, according to a list of attendees released by the Homeland Security Department.

Attendees described the meeting as more of a listening session than direct negotiations.

Some of the groups disagree over whether a final bill should include a guest worker program. Business groups want it to provide a stable labor force but unions feel it could lead to the exploitation of workers’ rights.

“There wasn’t agreement on the details,” said David Ferreira, vice president for government relations for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Chamber.

In addition, many said while the administration should move quickly on immigration reform, it was more important to craft legislation that could pass Congress than stick to a strict timeline. 

“Passage is the number one goal here,” Ferreira said, who added the administration wants a “bipartisan consensus” for the eventual bill.

In comments at a summit in Mexico more than a week ago, Obama himself said it is unlikely that Congress will act on legislation until 2010 due to the debate consuming Washington over healthcare reform along with a climate change bill and an overhaul of financial regulations that is waiting in the wings.

This story was posted at 3:50 and updated at 6:05.