WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama will kick off a campaign-style push on comprehensive immigration reform Tuesday afternoon with a major speech in El Paso, Texas, but don't expect Congress to pass legislation anytime soon.
The president is “trying to lead a constructive and civil debate on the need to fix the broken immigration system,” said a senior administration official during a Monday night conference call. The official said Obama will lay out a blueprint for action during his speech and will continue pressing the issue in the coming months as part of a broader effort to “responsibly move forward in advancing legislation in Congress.”
But the political reality is that Republicans, and some Democrats vulnerable in the 2012 elections, have zero interest in taking on such a contentious issue -- a detail that Obama will likely gloss over in his speech.
“He’s going to make the case that legislation is the root of reform,” said the official. “He wants to [pass legislation] as soon as possible, but he’s not going to lay out any timelines.”
In recent weeks, the president has tried to jump-start momentum on immigration reform. He has held a string of high-profile meetings with business and faith leaders, law enforcement officials, lawmakers and Hispanic Hollywood celebrities as part of a broader effort to rally the public on the issue. His Tuesday speech will highlight two specific aspects of reform: border security -- and the progress his administration has already made on this front -- and potential economic benefits.
Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both of whom will play a pivotal role in passing any immigration legislation, have argued for specific benchmarks on border security before taking on more controversial aspects of reform, namely a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S. But a second senior administration official pushed back on the Senators' ten-point border security plan for Arizona when talking with reporters.
“We’re already doing a lot of what’s on their list,” said this official. “Some of the other things are … very, very expensive, in terms of what gain you would get. So you have to wonder about that.”
Earlier Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed suggestions that Obama’s latest push on the issue is more about winning political support from Hispanics and less about getting something passed in Congress since he isn’t reaching out to key Republicans like McCain or Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“The most valuable commodity that exists in the West Wing is the president’s time, as you know. Everybody here knows,” Carney said during a briefing. “Just look at how much time he’s dedicating to immigration reform, and that should tell you how seriously he is approaching this issue.”
“Obviously, there will be a time for consultations with the lawmakers you mentioned," he added, "but just sitting in a room with some lawmakers is not going to get you any closer to that legislation than it did in the past.”
Obama's speech comes a week after some Hispanic lawmakers grumbled that the president could be doing more with his executive authority to impact immigration policy in the absence of comprehensive reform.