President Obama tours a border cargo facility in El Paso, Texas, as part… (Jim Young, Reuters )
Reporting from El Paso — President Obama visited the southern border to push for an overhaul of the immigration system, part of a renewed effort to shore up his standing among Latino voters and paint Republicans as hostile to a minority group whose force in U.S. politics is growing.
Chances of passing an immigration bill are considered to be low, but the White House is taking high-visibility steps to show it is not abandoning a goal that has its roots in the 2008 campaign.
Obama came to a spot near the international bridge leading to Mexico — close enough to the boundary line that a Mexican flag could be seen waving in the hot breeze. He said his administration had made great strides in stopping immigrants from illegally crossing the border, but added that illegal immigration required a "comprehensive" solution that would include a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the U.S.
He accused Republicans of "trying to move the goal posts."
"They said we needed to triple the Border Patrol," Obama said, addressing an enthusiastic outdoor crowd. "But now they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll say we need a moat. Maybe they'll want alligators in the moat. They'll never be satisfied! And I understand that. That's politics."
With Obama running for reelection, Republicans have questioned the sincerity and timing of his immigration push. The office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said it hadn't heard from the White House on the issue.
White House aides have not released a timetable for passing a bill or put forward a draft.
What's more, the political conditions for taking up an immigration bill are worse than in the first two years of Obama's presidency, when he was unable to get a bill passed. Republicans, who won a majority in the House in the 2010 midterm election, have filled key committee posts with lawmakers who strictly oppose a pathway to legal status, calling it amnesty.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement: "The president's push to legalize millions of illegal immigrants is purely political. The president wasn't able to pass his version of immigration reform when he had large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate because of bipartisan opposition."
Obama has refocused on immigration at a moment when his approval rating among Latino voters, as among other groups, has begun to slip. In 2008, he received two-thirds of the Latino vote. A Gallup poll released last month showed that his support among Latinos had fallen to 54%. But other polls show Latinos still prefer Democrats to Republicans by large margins.
Disenchantment among Latinos comes from the stalled immigration effort paired with Obama's aggressive deportation policies. In his first two years in power, the U.S. deported about 783,000 people, 19% more than were deported in the last two years of George W. Bush's tenure. Although Obama has said enforcement agents target criminals, many immigrants without criminal records are getting swept up.
In the 2010 fiscal year, for example, 197,000 people who were not considered criminals were deported, about the same as the number of criminals sent out of the country, according to federal data.
In a recent meeting at the White House, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked Obama to use his executive authority to curb deportations among certain categories of immigrants, including family members of U.S. citizens. Obama declined, saying decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis, according to an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even if he can't retool the immigration system before the 2012 election, Obama can put Republicans in an awkward spot by raising the issue, analysts say.
Pressed by the "tea party" movement and other conservative voters, Republicans can ill afford to pass a bill that could be depicted as providing amnesty. But opposing such legislation further distances the party from Latino voters already disillusioned with the Republican brand.
A tracking poll of Latino voters by ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions showed 20% of Latino registered voters were inclined to vote Republican in 2012. Some analysts say the Republican presidential nominee would need to win 44% or more of the Latino vote.