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Obama falters on immigration reform promises

Advocates for illegal immigrants fear the White House is doing the bare minimum to appease Latino voters before the midterm elections as it focuses on other issues.

April 20, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Advocates for illegal immigrants fear the White House is doing the bare minimum to appease Latino voters before the midterm elections in November, while concentrating its efforts on other issues it considers more urgent.

A White House commitment to overhaul the nation's immigration system this year is collapsing, with the Obama administration undecided about the best way to proceed on an issue the president had identified as a top priority.

Immigration advocates who meet regularly with White House officials said the Obama administration had been considering several approaches, including convening a summit meeting devoted to the issue and putting forward its own bill. Those who attended a session Friday with administration officials said they came away with no indication the White House had settled on a course of action.

"He made some commitments that he's supposed to be delivering on," said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama White House. "And that was over a month ago. So everybody can look at the calendar and make a pretty educated guess about how many days we have to get immigration done."

Immigration advocates fear the White House is doing the bare minimum needed to appease Latino voters before the midterm elections in November, while concentrating its efforts on issues it considers more urgent.

The White House said that Tuesday it still wanted to pass a bill this year and was trying to round up cosponsors. Flying home from a trip to Los Angeles, President Obama telephoned Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) from Air Force One and asked him to consider supporting an immigration bill, according to a Brown aide.

But the conversation wasn't fruitful. Brown told Obama that he would review any legislation that comes up, but that he believes "that the immediate focus should be on fixing the economy and creating jobs," the senator's aide said.

For immigration to pass in the narrow window left before campaign season fully kicks in, Obama needs to step up his involvement, members of Congress and immigration advocates said.

"The critical ingredient for whether we get immigration reform done this year will be whether the president has the courage to step forward and lead," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, an advocacy group for low-income people and minority groups. "That is the indispensible ingredient."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who met with Obama at the White House last month to discuss progress on immigration, said the president needed to put forward his own plan.

It's not clear Obama intends to do that. In a statement Tuesday, the White House suggested it wanted Congress to take the lead.

Graham and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have outlined a proposal that combines tough border security with a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants that involves payment of fines and back taxes.

The White House statement said the proposal represents a "framework that the president supports." The White House said the senators should develop a legislative proposal and "identify additional cosponsors from both parties."

Obama's push to line up bipartisan support has foundered to this point. Asked Tuesday whether any Republicans other than Graham had pledged support, one Obama administration aide simply laughed.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), once a proponent of a sweeping immigration overhaul, released a 10-point plan on Monday that focused exclusively on border security.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a supporter of the 10-point plan, said in an interview: "The prospects this year are not very good" for passage of an immigration bill. He cited as the reason "huge violence" at the border and the lack of consensus on the elements of an immigration bill.

Obama initially had promised to take up the issue in his first year in office. He missed the deadline amid an all-out push to enact a healthcare overhaul. Now, Obama is pushing for new regulations for the financial industry, tighter campaign finance laws and a new Supreme Court justice to replace John Paul Stevens, who is retiring.

Amid disappointment with Obama, Latinos also are anxious over a bill passed by Arizona state lawmakers to crack down on illegal immigration. Critics say the bill will empower police to engage in racial profiling.

An Obama aide said the White House is reviewing the bill, which has not yet been signed by Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said: "Latino and immigrant voters remember the promises they heard and are tuned-in enough to see they haven't been kept."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Janet Hook in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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