Touting gains on border security and mocking Republicans' insatiable appetite for border enforcement, President Obama said Tuesday it's time for immigration reform.
The administration has gone "above and beyond" what Republicans asked for on border security when the last round of serious immigration reform debate stalled in 2007, Obama said in El Paso on his first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border since becoming president.
"All the stuff they've asked for, we've done," Obama said. "But, I suspect there's going to be those who try to move the goal posts on us one more time."
They'll now call for even more Border Patrol agents and a higher fence, he said.
"Maybe they'll say we need a moat? Maybe they'll want alligators in the moat?" Obama said. "They'll never be satisfied. And I understand that; that's politics. But the truth is that the measures we've put in place are getting results."
The administration has continued the work started during the second Bush administration, adding more Border Patrol agents and intelligence analysts, building more border fencing, adding unmanned aerial systems and forging partnerships with Mexico. Obama cited a decrease in Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal border crossers, an increase in contraband seizures and low violent-crime rates in U.S. border cities as evidence their efforts are working.
The next step to increase border security is reforming the "broken" legal immigration system, so fewer people are forced to cross the border illegally, leaving the Border Patrol to focus on criminals, Obama said.
But Republicans disagree with his assessment, citing incidents such as the killings of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December and rancher Robert Krentz in March 2010, both in Arizona.
"President Obama speaks about our broken immigration system; but what about our broken borders?" asked Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl in a joint statement. "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."
And some questioned whether the president's speech was a sincere attempt to drive reform or a strategy to recapture Latino voters in 2012.
"These are some of same good words we heard from President Obama as a candidate the last round," said Jennifer Allen, executive director of Tucson-based Border Action Network. "The challenge for the president is turning these words into meaningful action, so this doesn't just come across like this was to get the Latino vote."
Obama's Tuesday speech was his latest effort to push for reform. He's had several meetings this past month with business, labor, law enforcement and faith leaders. He also met with Latino entertainment and media stars.
He vowed to continue leading the charge but asked the public to help push Congress to take up the issue.
"I am asking you to add your voices to this," Obama said. "We need Washington to know that there is a movement for reform gathering strength from coast to coast. That's how we'll get this done."
While the president may be sincere in his intentions to push for reform, it's highly unlikely any reform will get through Congress with the Republicans controlling the House, said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that advocates for slowing immigration.
Obama has pledged to push for immigration reform since he took office but with no results. There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, according to the latest Pew Hispanic Center study. Some crossed the border illegally and others overstayed visas.
"The overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families," Obama said. "But they've broken the rules and have cut in front of the line. And the truth is, the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally."
Immigration reform highlights
• Continue enforcing the law and securing the border.
• Punish businesses that hire and exploit illegal-immigrant workers.
• Establish a path to residency for illegal immigrants that requires them to pay a fine, learn English, pay taxes, undergo background checks and go through a lengthy process before they can get in line for legal status.
• Revamp the outdated legal-immigration system to make it easier for the "best and brightest" to not only study here, but to start businesses and create jobs.
• Provide farms a legal way to hire the workers they need, and provide a path for those workers to get legal status.
• Adjust laws so families following the rules are reunited more quickly.
• Pass the Dream Act, which would allow people brought here illegally as children to go to college and join the military.
Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl
"During the president's first visit to our nation's southern border, we hope he will finally see firsthand the continued security challenges facing all of those who live along our southwest border," McCain and Kyl said in a joint statement.
McCain and Kyl urged Obama to pass the Republican duo's border security-enforcement bill before calling for immigration reform. And they questioned why Obama chose to give his speech in El Paso instead of Arizona, which has been the busiest stretch of border for a decade.
"As he is well aware, the Tucson Sector remains the most trafficked sector, with close to a quarter million apprehensions just last year. By comparison, the El Paso Sector where President Obama is speaking hasn't had over 200,000 apprehensions since 1993. It is no wonder the president chose El Paso and not Tucson as a backdrop to talk about immigration reform."
Gov. Jan Brewer
"After two years of waiting, I am glad the White House has chosen to focus on immigration. But I remain skeptical. It would be a shame if this effort is more about locking down votes in 2012 than securing our nation's border today."
"The president should have come to the Arizona border, where I have invited him repeatedly," Brewer said. "He should have spoken to our ranchers, who live with drug-runners and human-smugglers crossing their lands. He should have met with our law enforcement officers, who are frequently outgunned by the heavily-armed cartels."
"If the president felt confident in declaring the border secure, he should have come to tell the people of Arizona face-to-face."
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva
The president laid out the framework well for what immigration reform needs to include and reminded people why it's an issue that needs attention now, and not in 10, 20 or 50 years, Grijalva said. Grijalva said he wishes Obama would have made this speech earlier in his presidency but said it was still a necessary affirmation of his position. Obama was correct that Republicans continue to "move the goal posts" and demand more enforcement. "The president said it really well," Grijalva said. "There is no satisfaction point. It's insatiable."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com.