Reporting from Washington — A key Senate Democratic leader said President Obama must treat the immigration crisis with far more urgency, as pressure over the issue intensified across the country Thursday.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, an Obama ally and one of a handful of Democratic senators shaping an immigration proposal presented last week, faulted the president for suggesting on Wednesday that an immigration bill won't be finished until 2011 at the earliest.
"Telling people we're not going to get a legislative solution this year, or to suggest maybe that it's not possible this year, is not in the best interests of the nation," Menendez said in an interview in the Capitol.
At the same time, legislators and activists took steps Thursday to head off policies that they contend unfairly target illegal immigrants. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked Arizona's governor in a letter to delay enactment of a tough new law that criminalizes the failure to carry immigration papers. Schumer also asked for a meeting with the governor, Republican Jan Brewer.
And one Latino advocacy group, unhappy with what it sees as Obama's aggressive deportation practices, said it would attempt to end-run the president. The group said it would send a Mother's Day letter to First Lady Michelle Obama, telling her that deporting people is destructive to families.
The developments reflected mounting frustration over the immigration question. Speaking at a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, Obama promised to "begin work" on an immigration bill this year, but set no deadline for completion.
His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, sounded a more pessimistic note at a briefing Thursday. Asked why the White House doesn't push ahead with an immigration bill as it has with other legislation that lacked a bipartisan consensus, Gibbs said: "Well, because there's not enough support to move forward."
Even if prospects for an immigration overhaul are dwindling, the White House shouldn't give up, proponents insisted. Menendez said he had asked the White House to host a major summit devoted to the issue, modeled after the healthcare summit in February. Invitations would go to House and Senate lawmakers from both parties, with a block of time set aside for hashing out differences.
A White House official who was asked about that idea Thursday said: "We are continuing to examine all of the options for moving forward with a bipartisan conversation."
Always a divisive issue, illegal immigration is generating renewed bitterness on the right and left of the political spectrum. Part of the upheaval springs from the Arizona law. But advocates for Latino interests are also resentful of the Obama administration's enforcement policies.
A memo by the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed that the agency wants to deport 400,000 people a year — more than double the number in 2005.
Menendez called on the president to order a less punitive approach. Deporting people when "counting is taking place" during the decennial census is "reason alone" for suspending the practice, he said.
In the hope that Michelle Obama might prove a softer touch, the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities said it would send a letter to the first lady inviting her to intervene.
Michelle Obama has taken a largely apolitical posture since her husband became president. Choosing sides on such a fraught issue would be out of character, but the alliance is appealing to her "as a mother."
"Deportations have reached record levels under President Obama's administration. For each person deported, there are young children left behind who are denied the right to be cared for by their parents," the letter to Michelle Obama reads.
With Arizona's law scheduled to go into effect in July, Schumer hopes to derail it by convincing Brewer that a better solution is on the horizon.
He asked her to wait one year while Congress puts in place an immigration system that would provide tough border security, a foolproof identification system so that undocumented workers can't get jobs, and a path to legal status for the 11 million people living in the United States illegally.
Delaying the Arizona law would require state legislative action. Arizona officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Conceding that Republican support is lacking in the U.S. Senate, Schumer also asked Brewer to help round up GOP votes, including those of Arizona's two senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl. So far, no Republican lawmaker has agreed to support the effort.
Schumer wrote that a comprehensive immigration bill is the best remedy.
"I simply do not believe the remedy Arizona has enacted will succeed in resolving the problem it is designed to address," he wrote.