By Alexander Bolton - 05/26/10 12:25 AM EDT
The White House announced it would send 1,200 troops to the U.S.-Mexican border after Senate Republicans told the president immigration reform depended on border security.
Senate Democratic leaders have made it clear to the president that immigration reform has no chance of passing the upper chamber unless a handful of Republicans sign on to the effort.
Lawmakers present described the meeting as “testy” and a “spirited discussion” after they clashed with Obama on healthcare reform, energy legislation and immigration reform.
Soon after, an administration official told reporters that Obama would request $500 million in supplemental funds for “enhanced border protection” and deploy up to 1,200 National Guard troops to provide surveillance support and counter-narcotics enforcement.
Obama also has come under pressure from conservatives since Arizona passed its law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Conservatives contend the action was necessary because of a failure by the federal government to secure the southern border.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a senior leading member of the GOP conference and Obama’s 2008 rival for the presidency, told the president in no uncertain terms that immigration reform could not pass before action was taken to secure the 1,900-mile border.
“We need to secure the border first,” McCain told reporters after the meeting, summarizing his exchange with the president. “People are convinced that unless we have the border secure we would be in a constant evolution of more people coming illegally and more amnesty.”
McCain faces a tough primary challenge from the right in an election year rife with anti-incumbent sentiment.
Oddly, Obama did not tell Republicans of his plans to call for greater border security, according to GOP lawmakers.
McCain said Obama did not agree with the scenario that unless the border were first secured, there would be a continuous cycle of illegal immigration and political efforts to grant citizenship to those who migrated in violation of the law.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said Republicans called for the deployment of additional troops along the border but the president did not appear receptive. McCain said Obama did not say anything about sending additional troops to the border.
“He just said he didn’t agree, he said we need to have comprehensive reform rather than secure the borders first,” McCain said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is pushing comprehensive immigration reform, has opposed splitting off popular elements such as border-security measures for fear that doing so could undermine the broad coalition he is attempting to build.
Republicans argued to the president that elements of immigration reform could pass piecemeal.
“I tried to make the point that it wasn’t a good idea to try to hold hostage the securing of the border in order to get comprehensive immigration reform passed,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “Securing the border will make it easier, not more difficult, to later on get comprehensive reform.”
Pro-immigration advocates said Tuesday’s meeting has come at a make-or-break moment in the immigration reform debate.
Advocates have said that if Obama does not seriously engage Republicans on immigration reform in the next few weeks, the possibility of passing broad legislation this year will evaporate.
“We have been wanting to see a more engaged White House,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza. “We hope they can get serious on this move forward.”
The president opened the meeting by asking Republicans to support passage of a $58.8 billion emergency spending bill and a nearly $200 billion package of tax provisions and unemployment aid, which Democrats say must pass by Memorial Day.
Calls to secure the border before granting a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country have been constant going back to the 2007 immigration debate.
Republicans and centrist Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) have demanded that Obama secure the border before they agree to back a comprehensive reform measure.
But proponents of comprehensive immigration reform, such as Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), say it is virtually impossible to seal it completely, given the heavy commerce and thousands of cars and trucks that cross every day.
Obama has voiced support for greater border security, but he’s never made it a prominent part of his political platform.
During the 2008 presidential race, his campaign released a fact sheet pledging that Obama would “support additional personnel, infrastructure and technology on the border and at our points of entry.”
“Obama and [Vice President Joe] Biden want to preserve the integrity of our borders,” his campaign website pledged. But the campaign generally prioritized immigration well behind other issues, such as the economy, education and energy and the environment.
Sam Youngman contributed to this article.