WASHINGTON – In his first major speech on the issue since taking office, President Barack Obama said Thursday that the U.S. immigration system “offends our most basic American values” and blamed Republican opposition for thwarting critically needed change.
It was the third time in as many days that Obama singled out Republicans as an obstructionist force, blaming them in his earlier appearances for defending the BP company in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast oil spill and for opposing stronger financial regulatory legislation.
The president’s remarks this week represented the clearest preview yet of the message the White House intends to highlight in this year’s midterm election: stubborn Republican refusal to help solve national problems.
The theme appeared to galvanize many supporters of immigration legislation who were in the audience at American University for Obama’s speech Thursday.
“I think it was a clarion call,” said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council. “He implied, ‘The ball is in your court.’ ”
Republicans shot back with a sizzling critique of the president’s position, dismissing Obama’s argument that the U.S.-Mexican border was more secure now than in years.
“Half a million people still illegally enter our country today, most through Arizona, and his administration has yet to lay out a strategy on how it intends to bring it under control,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
The immigration debate has been fueled by passage of an Arizona law that allows police to question those they suspect of being illegal immigrants following a lawful stop. The Obama administration is expected to announce soon that it will file a legal challenge to that law.
Speaking to religious and political activists, Obama in his speech recalled congressional steps toward immigration restructuring under former President George W. Bush, when a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers supported a comprehensive solution.
“Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling,” Obama said. “Now, under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics, many of the 11 Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support.”
Nonetheless, Obama offered no new solutions, timetables or points of compromise. Instead, he outlined a long-standing prescription for reform that, in addition to having no support from Republicans in Congress, also has failed to unite his fellow Democrats.
Some activists had asked the president to speak at Ellis Island, the historic New York entry port, on the Fourth of July. But Obama chose to deliver his immigration address ahead of the Independence Day weekend and before a crowd at American University.
In that sense, it was an innately political speech, aimed via television at a Latino and Democratic audience vital to the Democratic strategy for this fall’s elections.
“Latinos are a key part of the equation,” Eliseo Medina, international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said after the address. “We’re going to make a difference in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, California and Florida. So in many ways, the Republicans are playing with fire. Hopefully they’ll get that message.”
Some immigration advocates who have criticized Obama in the past for not treating the immigration issue with sufficient urgency said they were happy Thursday to see him devote a national speech to the subject, even if he made no commitment to pass a bill this year.
“This is the beginning of a new phase in this debate,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a think tank, who was in the American University audience. “The Republican Party’s position now is untenable and unsustainable.”
The address came close on the heels of comments by Obama in Wisconsin earlier this week in which he called out one House lawmaker who apologized to BP executives for pressure being exerted by the White House.
The president also criticized Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, for saying administration-backed financial regulatory legislation aimed at Wall Street practices was like using a nuclear weapon to kill an ant.