WASHINGTON — President Obama left little doubt Wednesday that his administration will challenge Arizona's divisive new immigration law, saying the measure "has the potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion."
After a private meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in the Oval Office, Obama denounced the state law cracking down on illegal immigration, and he also sent a clear message that a review led by Justice Department lawyers is likely to culminate in legal action.
Obama said that "a fair reading of the language of the statute" suggests that those who appear to be illegal immigrants could be "harassed or arrested."
"In the United States of America, no law-abiding person, be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant or a visitor or tourist from Mexico, should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like," Obama said.
Mexico is deeply unhappy about the Arizona law, which makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry registration papers. Officials in Mexico went so far as to issue a travel advisory that warns Mexicans that they could face harassment should they visit the state.
Calderon used the news conference to make his displeasure known. Speaking through an interpreter, he called the law "discriminatory," and said he opposes steps that "criminalize migration."
Calderon is in Washington for two days of high-level meetings and a formal state dinner, the second of the Obama presidency. Guests at the Wednesday night affair included Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and actress Eva Longoria Parker. Beyonce was to entertain.
At the news conference, the White House permitted only two questions. At the end, as the two presidents walked back into the White House, one reporter shouted a question, asking Obama when he would hold a full-fledged news conference.
There was no response.
Obama offered cautious support for an immigration overhaul that would provide a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. He gave no deadline for completion of a bill.
Obama said that during his conversation with Calderon, "I reaffirmed my deep commitment to working with Congress in a bipartisan way to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
Hearing those remarks, some immigration advocates were disappointed.
Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said in an interview, "I don't know that there's enough in what he said to be confident about what's going to happen next."
Obama said he didn't have the commitments of support from 60 senators that would provide the margin needed to defeat a filibuster. He indicated that his problem is with the Republicans, but Democrats are by no means united in wanting an immigration measure passed.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) wants U.S. borders to be strengthened before taking up an overhaul bill, a spokesman said. Nelson told reporters last week that comprehensive immigration reform is "a very hard sell until the border is secure."
Obama said he is making progress on this front. The number of people detained while trying to cross into the United States from Mexico has been dropping, one measure used by the government to quantify trends in illegal immigration.
The number of apprehensions fell from 859,000 in 2007 to 541,000 in 2009, the U.S. Homeland Security Department said. From October 2009 to April, about 293,000 people were apprehended trying to illegally cross the southern border.
"Illegal immigration is down, not up," Obama said, "and we will continue to do what's necessary to secure our shared border."