WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Wednesday he wants to begin work this year on legislation overhauling the nation's immigration system, firming up his commitment on a key priority for Latino voters and lawmakers.
Obama's comments at a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House reaffirmed his long-held support for immigration reform. He went a step further than he has in the past by calling for the work to begin this year.
Latino groups have been calling for Obama to deliver on his campaign promise of making immigration reform a top priority, with some activists and lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus complaining he wasn't doing enough.
Obama clouded the issue last week by saying "there may not be an appetite" in Congress to deal with another hot-button issue immediately after grueling fights over health care and financial regulation.
There also may not be enough time left on the legislative calendar to take up a contentious issue with midterm elections looming in November, but by making the commitment Obama may at least be able to tell Hispanic groups he tried.
Obama acknowledged immigration reform would be difficult to achieve and would require bipartisan support — something that's lacking in the Senate right now. And he made no commitment to finishing the process this year.
But he said it was the only way to deal with the nation's immigration problems.
"The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense comprehensive immigration reform," the president said.
"I want to begin work this year and I want Democrats and Republicans to work with me."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who's up for re-election in a state with a growing Latino population, also recently said he wants to tackle immigration overhaul this year, although pending energy legislation — another divisive issue — would likely come first.
Reid last week released draft immigration legislation with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., that calls for more federal enforcement agents and other border security-tightening benchmarks before illegal immigrants could become legal U.S. residents.
Obama praised that proposal Wednesday. But the one Republican who's been willing to work with Democrats on the issue recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has balked at moving ahead this year.
The focus is on the Senate because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has made clear that the Senate must act first on the immigration issue before she would force her Democrats into another tough vote.
Again Wednesday, Obama denounced the law passed in Arizona that requires police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they're in the country illegally. Some fear the law could lead to racial profiling, and Obama said federal officials were monitoring it for possible civil rights violations.
The president cited the Arizona law as a reason for action on immigration legislation.
"Make no mistake, our immigration system is broken, and after so many years in which Washington has failed to meet its responsibilities, Americans are right to be frustrated. ... But the answer isn't to undermine fundamental principles that define us as a nation " Obama said.
"Comprehensive reform — that's how we're going to solve this problem," he said.