WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Thursday assured immigration advocates frustrated by the wait for a promised overhaul of U.S. immigration laws that he remains committed to fixing a system he has said is broken. What remains unclear is whether Congress will send him a bill this year.
Obama also met separately later in the day with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who gave the president an outline of a bill they are drafting. Obama said afterward in a statement that he "looked forward to reviewing their promising framework."
Obama said he told the senators and the advocacy groups that "my commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is unwavering, and that I will continue to be their partner in this important effort."
The immigration issue is an important one for Obama, who has promised to work to solve the problem. Hispanics voted heavily for Obama in the 2008 presidential election, making the difference in key states like Florida, and their votes will be critical in the November midterm elections when Obama and his fellow Democrats will be fighting to maintain control of the House and Senate.
Latino voters who don't think progress is being made on the issue may not go to the polls.
Graham said he told Obama "in no uncertain terms" that the immigration effort could stall in Congress if the health care bill, which Republicans oppose, moves forward under a special process known as budget reconciliation that would limit the GOP's ability to derail the bill in the Senate.
"Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration," Graham said.
Schumer said he and Graham asked Obama for help building support in the Senate for an immigration bill, and getting business and labor groups to agree on the future flow of lower-skilled labor.
The South Carolina Republican said Obama also promised to help resolve outstanding issues pertaining to "virtual fencing" along the border with Mexico to detect people trying to enter the U.S. illegally, and creation of a temporary worker program that is satisfactory to business.
Another idea on the table is some type of high-tech Social Security card to keep illegal immigrants from getting jobs.
After meeting for more than an hour with Obama, immigration advocates told reporters they want Schumer and Graham to at least release their blueprint before a planned March 21 demonstration at the Capitol, with a bill introduced in the Senate soon after.
The relatively short timetable for getting major legislation out of Congress in a midterm election year is one obstacle to getting a bill that combines tougher border enforcement with a pathway to legalization for the estimated 12 million people in the U.S. illegally.
"We had a very good discussion about the difficulties," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. "I think the president is well aware of it. So are we."
Medina said the groups also want to discuss the issue with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, said Obama told the groups he would make a statement with Schumer and Graham when they release the blueprint.
"It is undeniable that presidential leadership, greater presidential leadership is needed, and the president committed to doing that," she said.
Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the president agreed to help get a legislative framework out before the rally. She the groups also discussed enforcement.
"We want results," Salas said. "That's what we're going to be expecting in the next couple of weeks."
Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.