Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks during a luncheon at the… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP…)
WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered a high-profile speech in the nation's capital Monday in support of overhauling immigration laws but sidestepped questions about his future once his mayoral term ends.
"I'm focused on the job I've got and want to finish as strong as I can," he told a National Press Club audience. When asked whether he would serve in the Obama administration after his term ends June 30, he said, "When I'm asked, I'll answer the question.
"The sun may be setting on my administration, but I'm not riding off into the sunset just yet," Villaraigosa said. He is due to return to Washington at the end of the week for a news conference with other mayors calling for tougher gun laws.
On Monday, Villaraigosa called for comprehensive immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million people who are in the United States unlawfully. Illegal immigrants would have to undergo background checks, show English language skills and American civics knowledge and pay back taxes before they could be processed for legal status under his proposal. The overhaul, he said, should include an effective employment verification system and "smart enforcement."
"We've created an immigration system that is long on enforcement but short on opportunity ... a system that happily capitalizes on the labor of millions of undocumented men and women but then refuses to extend them the basic rights and privileges that most of us take for granted," he said.
"The goal of our immigration enforcement policy should be to remove real threats to our borders and inside our country," Villaraigosa said. "We should deport serious offenders. We should not deport people whose most serious crime is a lack of papers."
He dismissed the notion that it may be too difficult for Congress to tackle the politically hot issue of immigration as it gears up for fights over gun laws and federal spending.
"Washington should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time," he said.
Villaraigosa said he would be speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors soon, seeking its support in pressuring Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.
Urging Republicans to support an overhaul of immigration laws, he brought up GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's poor showing among Latino voters, attributing it to the "vitriolic nature of the immigration debate."
"If the Republicans don't go to the center — they continue to be, you know, dominated by the far right — you're going to see them lose more and more," he said.
Villaraigosa also pitched his immigration-overhaul idea as financially smart.
"This doesn't just make moral sense, it makes economic sense," he said. "If we legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States, we'd give an infusion to our economy of $1.5 trillion, a shot in the arm over the next decade. The federal government would see $4.5 billion in more tax revenue in just three years."
Acknowledging the difficulty of the issue, Villaraigosa recalled a massive 2006 immigration rally outside Los Angeles City Hall during which "many on my staff said, 'Don't go out there; don't do it; you've been in office less than a year; your job is to fix potholes; leave immigration to the feds.'
"But when 1 million people march to your front step, they deserve a welcome," he said. "No human being is illegal.... We must enshrine this principle into the heart and soul of the country's immigration policy."
Kristen Williamson of the Federation for American Immigration Reform said the mayor's presentation was nothing new: He "merely reiterated the same tired calls for more immigration from the open borders lobby. His plan to extend amnesty to illegal aliens, continue chain migration and invite more unskilled immigration benefits immigrants while harming American workers and undermining the rule of law.''