WASHINGTON - Hoping to breathe new life into the stalled immigration effort, President Barack Obama on Thursday blamed the delay on recalcitrant Republicans whom he said had given in to the "pressures of partisanship and election-year politics."
Republicans responded that Obama's first step going forward must be to secure the border.
In his first immigration speech, Obama took Republicans to task, in particular 11 GOP senators who had backed attempts during the previous Republican administration to tighten the immigration system. He did not call out anyone by name.
Obama dismissed the focus on a "border security first" approach, saying the system is too big to be fixed "only with fences and border patrols." He advocated a comprehensive approach that would call on the government, businesses and illegal immigrants themselves to live up to their responsibilities within the law.
Obama also wants to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S; critics call it amnesty. But Obama said the immigrants must first acknowledge that they broke the law, pay fines and back taxes, perform community service and learn English.
Without setting a timeline, Obama questioned whether the political will exists to get a bill through Congress.
"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes," he said. "That is the political and mathematical reality." In the Senate, Democrats fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP delaying tactics.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama would get the bipartisan support he wants "if he would take amnesty off the table and make a real commitment to border and interior security." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is in a tight re-election race and could benefit politically from enacting a broad overhaul, said he was committed to passing a bill this year.
Many immigrant advocates praised the president's comments. They had been pressing him for some time to give such as a speech - although it broke no new ground - as a demonstration of his commitment to an issue he promised would be a priority his first year in office.
But an organization of Hispanic conservatives criticized the speech as a "sheer political move" to keep them on board for the November elections. Obama was elected with strong backing from Hispanics and they could tip the balance in several tight races this year.
"President Obama is operating under the false assumption that Latinos are natural-born Democrats who will rally behind his policies in lockstep," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "Latinos must not let themselves be deceived by the soaring rhetoric that has replaced meaningful action on immigration."
In Arizona, which is weeks away from enacting a controversial anti-immigrant law that Obama has called "misguided," Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh said he was offended by the president's speech and comments about the new state law.
In the speech, Obama said the law is an understandable expression of the public's frustration with the government's failure to overhaul the immigration system, but it also is ill-conceived, divisive and would put undue pressure on local police departments.
The law requires police enforcing another statute to ask about a person's immigration status if there is reason to believe they're in the country illegally. Immigrant advocates want the Justice Department, which is reviewing the law, to sue Arizona to block it from taking effect this month.
Even before Obama spoke, the path toward getting an immigration bill through Congress was uncertain and it remained so afterward.
"It's really going to be up now to Capitol Hill to answer what has been his very clear call for action," said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group that favors strong enforcement of immigration laws told KPCC's Patt Morrison today that she is glad she's not in the president’s shoes.
“He clearly had to avoid promising anything,” Vaughn said. “The prospects of actually accomplishing something like that are slim to none. He is really walking a tightrope here in trying to sound like he really is going to work on this issue without making any actual promises. There were no proposals, no details, no actual ideas.”
Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former Commissioner of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, lauded Obama’s speech and said he made points that were vague but clear.
“I think [the speech] is part of a very systematic gameplan,” Meissner told Morrison. “I think he’s signaling that he’s ready to work more effectively and harder to get a bill.”
KPCC's Collin Robinson and Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.