President Barack Obama promised to make overhauling the immigration system a top priority in his first year as president. He's now in Year Two, and the odds that he'll get to sign a bill before the November midterm elections appear long.
Grass-roots activists frustrated by the wait for a new system are organizing a rally Sunday on the National Mall by what they hope will be thousands of people from across the country voicing their displeasure at the pace of action.
In meetings last week, Obama sought to assure activists and the two senators who are drafting a bill of his "unwavering" commitment to comprehensive immigration overhaul. But the White House has also signaled that the issue is not among the legislative priorities it wants completed before the entire House and one-third of the Senate face voters in November.
Asked about the priorities after health care, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said financial regulation, energy legislation and watering down a recent Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance are among the "big priorities" — not to mention jobs and the economy.
Gibbs said nothing would happen on immigration without strong bipartisan support. "It's got to be more than the president wants to get something done," he said.
How to handle the estimated 12 million people in the U.S. illegally is a volatile issue, with some interests opposing any attempt to help them become citizens and others insisting on stronger border controls first. Lawmakers failed to agree in 2006 and 2007 when they last tried to overhaul the immigration system, and the political climate this year is tougher than it was back then.
Advocates remain hopeful and say Congress has plenty of time to send Obama a bill by November.
Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., released an outline of their bill Thursday, and Obama pledged "to do everything in my power" to get immigration legislation moving through Congress this year.
The outline calls for illegal immigrants who want to get on the path to legal status to admit they broke the law by entering the U.S., pay fines and back taxes, and perform community service. They also would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before working toward legal residency, required before becoming a citizen.
Advocates welcomed the outline, but would prefer an actual bill in Congress.
"Now it's up to Congress and the president to advance legislation that combines these elements," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America's Voice. "Given how long we have been debating the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the American people want and deserve nothing less."
Rally organizer Gabe Gonzalez credited pressure by grass-roots groups for progress on the issue.
Obama has put Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in charge of overseeing the immigration overhaul effort, and she has sought support for it in dozens of meetings with lawmakers from both parties since the beginning of last year.
Her department also has taken steps to improve the existing system by focusing deportations of undocumented immigrants on those with criminal histories and by going after employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, rather than the workers themselves.
But those steps haven't eased the anger and disappointment felt by immigration advocates and Latinos, who voted heavily for Obama in the 2008 presidential election largely because of his promise.
Obama has said the system needs to be fixed to better track who comes in and out of the U.S., crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers and help those people come out of the shadows and contribute to society, including paying taxes. He wants them to register, pay a fine, learn English and not skip ahead of anyone already in the citizenship pipeline.
"It will be one of my priorities on my first day (as president) because this is an issue that we have demagogued," candidate Obama told the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in June 2008. "There's been a lot of politics around it, but we haven't been serious about solving the problem. And I want to solve the problem."
He told the League of United Latin American Citizens the following month: "I will make it a top priority in my first year as president."
Five months after taking office, Obama said after a White House meeting in June 2009 with a bipartisan group of about 30 lawmakers that immigration overhaul would be a difficult undertaking. But he said work on it must get under way that year.
By August 2009, the rhetoric had changed.
Asked about immigration overhaul at a news conference during a visit to Mexico, Obama said changing the system would have to wait until 2010 while he focused on other priorities, such as overhauling the health care and financial regulatory systems.
In appearances after that, Obama promised action but dropped references to any timetable.
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