Obama Turns To Immigration At A Tough Time

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President Obama outlines the need for an immigration policy overhaul during a speech Thursday in Washington. Sparked by Arizona's enactment of a tough anti-immigrant law and protests across the country against it, illegal immigration has emerged as a key issue during this midterm election yea

With little hope of action on Capitol Hill, some might question why the president chose Thursday to give a policy address on the topic. There are several possible reasons, from fulfilling campaign promises to just trying to jump-start debate on the issue.

When President Obama spoke Thursday about overhauling immigration policy, he made this observation: "The question now is whether we will have the courage and the political will to pass a bill through Congress to finally get it done."

Short of a sudden mood shift on Capitol Hill, the answer would seem to be no -- at least not this year. So what was the president's motivation in delivering the speech now?

The White House cites a few recent events, like the president's meetings this week with advocates for immigrants and with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"The president's view is that there’s been a lot in the news about immigration lately,'' White House spokesman Bill Burton said Wednesday. "There's been the Arizona law, there's been meetings about it, there's been protests about it. He thought this was a good time to talk plainly with the American people about his views on immigration."

Undoubtedly, immigration remains on the minds of many Americans -- and many are not pleased with the president's handling of the issue. A survey conducted in June by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only a third of the respondents approved of how Obama is dealing with immigration, the lowest approval rating out of nine major issues.

The meetings and the president's speech could also signal that the federal government will soon move forward with a lawsuit against Arizona's new immigration law.

But it could also be that the White House is proceeding with its various agendas in a systematic way and is just now getting around to immigration, said Doris Meissner, who led what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.

"I do think [the speech] is an effort to focus on it and reinforce the messages," Meissner said. "I think it tees up the issue for early 2011 quite well, because you have to be working on it now."

Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, agreed that factors like the Arizona law likely gave the White House further impetus to act now, even though it's unlikely that Congress will take up the issue before the midterm elections.

Dan Tichenor, a University of Oregon political scientist and author of a book on immigration reform called Dividing Lines, said that the speech was in part aimed at Latino and Asian voters, particularly those who feel that President Obama has not acted quickly enough to fix the immigration system.

"He was trying to explain why he has not managed to fulfill his promise," Tichenor said. "He's saying, 'I'm committed, and here's specifics of what I want to do -- here's the real beef.' "

There's not much evidence of action on Capitol Hill. Any legislation would need Republican support in the Senate, and so far, the only Republican who has worked on a bill, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has backed away from the effort.

But Tichenor and Audrey Singer, an immigration policy expert at the Brookings Institution, both said there's too much swirling around the immigration issue for the president to have waited much longer to address it.

"I think the pressure is so great coming on the heels of the Arizona law and potential copycat legislation and the anticipated federal lawsuit that he runs the risk that if he doesn't say anything, he's not putting his money where his mouth is," Singer said.

The pressure, she said, is coming from all sides, from activists who support a general amnesty to supporters of enhanced border security "It's truly a moment where everybody agrees that something has to be done," she said. "We just don't all necessarily agree on what it is."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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