GUADALAJARA, MEXICO — Locked in a healthcare debate that is claiming much of his energy, President Obama acknowledged that a push to overhaul the nation's immigration system will have to wait until 2010 and even then will prove a major political test.
Obama suggested it would be too ambitious to aim for passage of new immigration laws before the end of the year, at a time when he will be confronting "a pretty big stack of bills."
Speaking at the end of a two-day summit meeting of fellow North American leaders, Obama said, "Now, I've got a lot on my plate, and it's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don't all just crash at the same time."
The summit provided a brief forum for addressing lingering grievances among the trio of North American countries. Mexico is upset that the U.S. won't allow truckers to move cargo within American borders, while Canada is unhappy about "Buy American" provisions written into the $787-billion stimulus bill passed into law in February. Obama sought to placate his counterparts on both points. But other issues were also raised, including the coup in Honduras and the human rights record in Mexico.
Obama said he won't ignore immigration. His administration is meeting with lawmakers and coming up with a bill that would enjoy bipartisan support, so that "when we come back next year . . . we should be in a position to start acting."
As a candidate, Obama said during a campaign stop in July 2008 that he would make immigration "a top priority in my first year as president." But the realities of governing have forced him to reexamine how best to roll out his agenda.
Opponents of the existing immigration structure said they were dismayed by the timetable.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group, said he does not expect immigration reform to be as difficult as the administration seems to think it will be.
"I think we'd be smarter to move on it this year," Sharry said. "There's a real hunger on the part of the American public to make sure immigrants are legal, are working towards citizenship, are paying their taxes and not being used by bad-actor employers to undercut honest employers."
Several Mexican officials also reacted with disappointment.
"This is not good news," said Mexican Sen. Carlos Navarrete of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "However, we can hope that Latino Congress members who have taken on this initiative [of immigration reform] will maintain their activism in this matter."
Obama predicted that he would prevail in providing a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
"Ultimately, I think the American people want fairness," said Obama, speaking on a stage alongside Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Obama said he raised with Calderon the issue of human rights violations by the military in its war on drug traffickers. He said he was reassured that the Mexican government is confronting the problem, giving better training to soldiers and police, and seeing to the investigation of alleged abuses.
"I have great confidence in President Calderon's administration applying the law-enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so in a way that's consistent with human rights," Obama said.
Allegations of army abuse, including torture, rape, illegal detentions and murder, have soared since Calderon in 2006 deployed more than 45,000 troops across the country to battle powerful drug cartels. In many cities, the army has supplanted local officials and assumed all law enforcement duties.
The accusations have also jeopardized a portion of the U.S. money due Mexico under the three-year, $1.4-billion Merida Initiative designed to better equip and train Mexican security forces. A single U.S. lawmaker, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), has blocked about $100 million until the State Department can certify that Mexico is respecting human rights as it conducts a difficult and deadly campaign against traffickers.
Calderon was defiant in Monday's news conference, challenging his critics to find a case in which authorities did not investigate and prosecute guilty parties.
"Our commitment to human rights is absolute," Calderon said. "We have met and will continue to meet this commitment, not because of any money that may or may not come through the Merida Initiative, and not because a U.S. congressman asks for it, but because of our profound convictions."
In a statement, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Calderon's assertion "flies in the face of all available evidence."
Obama and his fellow Mexican and Canadian leaders reiterated their demand that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya be reinstated and "constitutional order" restored to the Central American country. But they complained that critics who say the U.S. government isn't doing enough to make that happen are hypocrites. Zelaya was deposed in a coup and deported June 28.
"The same critics who say the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say we're always intervening and [that] Yankees need to get out of Latin America," Obama said in one of the more spirited exchanges during Monday's news conference. "You can't have it both ways."
He said critics were urging the U.S. government to act in a fashion -- perhaps even using force to reinstate Zelaya -- that the same people would condemn in "every other context."
Kristina Sherry in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.