OTTUMWA, Iowa (AP)— President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned of harassment against Hispanics under Arizona's tough new immigration law, saying such "poorly conceived" measures can be halted if the federal government fixes the nation's broken immigration system for good.
Obama pledged to bring his own party along, pleading with Republicans to join in as the only realistic hope to solve a politically volatile problem.
On a day dominated by his economic message, Obama offered a fresh, stern criticism of a new Arizona law that allows police to question anyone about their immigration status if they have reason to suspect they are in the country illegally. He said it targets people who look like they might be illegal immigrants.
"Now suddenly if you don't have your papers, and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you're going to get harassed – that's something that could potentially happen," Obama said of the Arizona measure. "That's not the right way to go."
Obama's comments came on the same day that Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were critical of Arizona's new law, and Holder said the federal government may challenge it. The president sought to step up Washington's will to get an immigration deal done.
"I will bring the majority of Democrats to the table in getting this done," Obama said in response to a question at a town hall in south-central Iowa. "But I've got to have some help from the other side."
Obama said he hoped to get a deal done "sometime soon" – a politically vague timetable in an election year with a shrinking window for legislative action.
Starting a two-day, three-state Midwestern trip, Obama's broader message was about economic revival. Back in Iowa, the state that jump-started his White House bid, Obama sought to reassure wary Iowa voters with a message he hopes will resonate in the fall elections: The economic recovery hasn't reached everyone, but progress is being made. He's not on the ballot this year, but his party's control of Congress is at stake, along with dozens of governors' seats and state legislatures.
On immigration, Obama said he wants a federal law that would secure the borders and require illegal immigrants to register, pay a fine, learn English, take responsibility for having broken the law and get in the back of the line before others who are seeking U.S. citizenship.
He said if all of those challenges are handled in one comprehensive measure, then "we can once again be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."
He said Arizona's law is poorly conceived, but it is equally unfair for the state to have to deal with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
The president sought to surround himself with rural Americans in his latest getaway from the White House confines. He focused on his economic and clean energy programs as job creators, even as he acknowledged the pain and skepticism of hard-hit areas.
Despite encouraging news about an expanding economy and markets, the president told an Iowa crowd, "times are still tough in towns like Fort Madison. And times are still tough for middle-class Americans, who had been swimming against the current for years before the economic tidal wave hit."
Obama outlined his administration's goals to "create conditions so that folks who work hard can finally get ahead." They include improving schools, making college more affordable, expanding health coverage and preventing Wall Street irresponsibility, he said.
Underscoring the challenge was agriculture secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who told reporters traveling with Obama: "There's a silent crisis occurring in rural America that's been ongoing for several decades." He said the president is delivering a new framework for the "revival of the rural economy."
Obama also plans to stop in Illinois and Missouri before returning to the White House late Wednesday. Iowa and Missouri are sharply contested in virtually every election, and Republicans this year think they can snag the Illinois Senate seat that Obama held before becoming president.
After speaking first at a wind energy plant Obama made a surprise stop at a 140-acre organic farm in nearby Mount Pleasant. MogoOrganic Farm supplies food for local schools and businesses. The president then dropped by Jerry's Family Restaurant in Mount Pleasant for a cup of coffee and slice of rhubarb pie.
The president capped his day with the town hall at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.
The latest economic forecasts show some signs of progress: The nation added jobs at the fastest pace in three years last month, the manufacturing industry is growing at a steady pace, and new claims for jobless benefits have declined.
But the unemployment rate, perhaps the most recognizable economic indicator, has held steady at 9.7 percent for three months, and 15 million Americans remain out of work. By the White House's own estimates, as well as those of many independent economists, that rate isn't expected to fluctuate more than a few tenths of a percentage point through the end of 2010.
Polls suggest the president and his party are increasingly vulnerable on the economy. Democrats and Republicans each have the confidence of 44 percent of people for handling the economy, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted this month. The Democrats had a 9-point advantage just four months ago and have held an edge since AP polls began asking about the issue in 2006.