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Advocates Aim To Revive Immigration Overhaul

Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza talks to reporters after meeting with President Obama to discuss comprehensive immigration reform.
Alex Brandon
Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza talks to reporters after meeting with President Obama to discuss comprehensive immigration reform.

President Obama took time out from health care Thursday to address another big, controversial issue: immigration.

He met with two senators who are trying to craft a bipartisan compromise that would strengthen border security and provide a path to legalization for immigrants who are already in the country illegally.

The meeting comes less than two weeks before immigrant rights activists are planning a march on Washington to draw attention to their cause. But so far, the White House has been reluctant to put the issue on the front burner.

Immigration Rights Advocates Want Results

Aides say the president's commitment to immigration overhaul is "unwavering," even though he gave the issue only a brief mention toward the end of his State of the Union speech.

"We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system," Obama said in the address.

Merely "continuing the work" of fixing immigration isn't good enough for the immigrant advocates who met with the president for more than an hour Thursday afternoon.

"We're waiting for him to show us results," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "We believe that his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is real, but we also want results, and that's what we're going to be expecting in the next couple of weeks."

In particular, advocates want to see an outline of immigration legislation before March 21, when thousands of demonstrators plan to march on Washington to show their support for immigration overhaul.

"American voters across the nation are frustrated with inaction," said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration campaigns for the National Council of La Raza.

"Many, many communities across the country are coming to Washington to make sure that people know we'll have their back, but we'll also have them accountable."

Looking Into Legislation

After meeting with the activists, Obama sat down with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to get an update on their effort to craft a bipartisan immigration bill. That effort hasn't gotten very far.

"The good news, I suppose, is that President Obama has found a Republican to co-sponsor legislation. The bad news is that Lindsey Graham hasn't found a single other Republican at the Senate to join him," said University of Oregon political scientist Daniel Tichenor.

There are immigration skeptics in both parties, said Tichenor, author of a book on the politics of immigration reform called Dividing Lines. But neither party can afford to ignore the fast-growing Latino vote.

"The Latino vote on this is huge," Tichenor said. He suggested that the White House may be pushing a long-shot bid at reform, "in part to signal to Latino voters that they want to get this done."

Immigration Overhaul Is Tricky Business

But President Bush also tried, and failed, to get immigration reform done at a time when the nation's unemployment rate was less than 5 percent — half of what it is today. A comprehensive fix could be even more difficult now.

"Theoretically, it's the right time to do it, because illegal immigration has slowed," said Doris Meissner, who led the immigration service during the Clinton administration. "But when Americans are hurting, it's very hard to be generous about an issue like immigration."

Meissner, who's now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said if there's any lesson to be drawn from past failures, it's that overhauling immigration is hard. She said the president's position has been consistent: He supports an overhaul, but it's not a top priority like a health care or financial regulations overhaul.

"By the time those other priorities are met or might be met, it's pretty hard to find time on the Senate calendar this year to imagine an immigration bill," Meissner said.

The president talked about those challenges Thursday in his meeting with immigration advocates. Their message for him is that just talking isn't enough.

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Corrected: March 14, 2010 at 9:00 PM PDT
The audio and an earlier Web version of this story contained an incorrect first name for professor Tichenor. His correct first name is Daniel.
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