Speaking in El Paso, Texas Tuesday, President Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform, citing America's legacy as a nation of immigrants and calling the need to find a solution for the millions of undocumented workers critical to the country's common future.
The president also signaled a shift in federal priorities. While continuing to highlight tougher border enforcement measures, Obama noted that he has redesigned our enforcement practices under the law to make sure we're focusing primarily on criminals.
He proposes increasing border security and imposing more penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants but making it easier for foreign students to remain in the United States.
"One way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else," Obama said.
The president's speech was an attempt to balance two political groups that he must woo for his 2012 campaign. Obama pledged to Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly backed him in 2008, that he would seek legislation that would make it easier for undocumented workers to become citizens. At the same time, he wants to show political independents that he is committed to border security and that increased immigration affects their lives positively
Obama has held a series of meetings with key Latino officials and reform advocates in recent weeks. Despite an aggressive push for substantive policy changes from his political base, the president indicated he has ruled out acting on his own to implement provisions of a reform bill that failed to win congressional approval last year.
Republicans say Obama is wrong in arguing that the border is secure. They cite a February report by the Government Accountability Office stating that only about 44% of the 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border was under operational control, a measure of how easy it is to detect and then apprehend people illegally crossing into the United States.
"We hear from our constituents on a daily basis, and, while some progress has been made in some areas, they do not believe the border is secure," Senators Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement after Obama's speech.