WASHINGTON – The presidents of Mexico and the United States offered a united front during a state visit Wednesday – not just against brutal drug cartels but against Arizona and its tough new law that puts police on the front lines of immigration enforcement.
The joint rebuke left border-control advocates steaming, reflecting intense feelings that for years have stymied efforts to overhaul U.S. immigration laws.
“In the United States of America, no law-abiding person, be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor or tourist from Mexico, should (ever) be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like,” Obama said at a Rose Garden news conference, with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at his side.
Calderon said that the Arizona law opens his countrymen, whether in the U.S. legally or not, to harassment and discrimination. Supporters of the law dispute that.
The law makes it a crime to be in the United States without permission and requires police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Calderon asserted that it was created “so that people who work and provide things to this nation will be treated as criminals.”
Mexico is hoping the White House will go to federal court to prevent enforcement, and Obama said he is awaiting a Justice Department review before deciding whether to try.
The Arizona controversy is intertwined with border security policy and a lingering debate over immigration reform. This year’s volatile electorate has made it hard to see a breakthrough in that area, which has eluded Congress for years.
Obama vowed to work with the Mexican government to create jobs and fight drug cartels, and to “ensure that our common border is secure, modern and efficient, including immigration that is orderly and safe.” And he agreed that Americans should expect tighter border enforcement. But in the meantime, he said, a response like Arizona’s is “a misdirected expression of frustration over our broken immigration system.”
Despite public perceptions, he stressed, “illegal immigration is down, not up.”
Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, a Republican, did not respond to requests for comment on the presidents’ remarks.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, accused Obama of meddling, given that state law “is not within his purview.” He also felt Calderon was out of line by coming to the White House and airing such complaints, which are widespread in Mexico.
“I just think it’s inappropriate to be a visitor in the United States or to another country and to go in and criticize the domestic laws of that country,” he said.
More than 23,000 people have been killed since Calderon ordered soldiers to Ciudad Juarez and other cities more than three years ago to disrupt the drug cartels. Cornyn said the ongoing violence “has made it harder” for Congress to tackle immigration reform, but he also blamed Obama for showing “insufficient commitment” to securing the border and failing to invest much effort into immigration reform despite campaign promises to enact reform within a year.
“It hasn’t been a priority for him,” Cornyn said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, speaking at the National Press Club, defended Obama, saying that along with energy policy, immigration is one of two “huge issues that are occupying significant amounts of the president’s time.”
The immigration debate hovered over the visit and even made an unexpected – and heart-wrenching – appearance when first ladies Michelle Obama and Margarita Zavala visited a school just outside Washington to discuss childhood obesity.
“My mom … says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn’t has papers,” an unidentified second-grader told them, adding quietly: “My mom doesn’t have papers.”
“We have to work on that. We have to fix that,” Michelle Obama told the girl.
In the Rose Garden, President Obama said immigration reform isn’t entirely up to him and fellow Democrats: “I don’t have 60 votes in the Senate. I’ve got to have some support from Republicans.”
He wants a combination of heightened border security and a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers. Anyone in this country illegally would have to pay back taxes and fines, he said, learn English and “get to the back of the line” for permission to live in the United States or become citizens.