BARACK Obama is pushing immigration reform as his next big agenda item after claiming the US system is “fundamentally broken”.
The US President said yesterday he wanted the US congress to pass legislation setting a uniform standard on immigration, and blasted a controversial state law in Arizona.
“Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling – and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics,” Mr Obama said.
Making his first speech dedicated to immigration, the President seized on a new law in Arizona that requires police to check the status of people suspected of being illegal immigrants.
The law, which comes into force this month, has been attacked for endorsing racial profiling in a state that borders Mexico and has many immigrants – legal and illegal.
Despite reinforcing his opposition to the law, Mr Obama yesterday offered no clear strategy to congress or timetable for reform. But he did lay down four principles, including a limited form of amnesty for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.
In a speech to political and business leaders at the American University in Washington, Mr Obama said illegal immigrants needed to come forward and admit they had broken the law. They should earn their citizenship by registering with the authorities, paying a fine and taxes, undergoing background checks and learning English.
The President demanded that businesses be held accountable if they broke the law by deliberately hiring and exploiting illegal immigrant workers, many paid below the minimum wage.
Despite some advances, Mr Obama said more reform of the immigration system was needed to speed up the process and make it easier for the best and brightest to enter the US.
After ordering 1200 extra National Guard troops to cover the Mexican border in May, the President said border security required improvement too.
But he lashed out at critics who claimed this was the only solution. “There are those who argue that we should not move forward with any other elements of reform until we have sealed our borders,” he said.
“But our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols. It won’t work.”
The Arizona law has become a flashpoint for immigration debate in the US, causing diplomatic problems with Mexico. The country’s President, Felipe Calderon, has branded it “unacceptable discrimination” and warned that relations could suffer.
Despite drug-related crime emanating from Mexico, most cross the border simply looking for work.
With the argument dividing mainly along party lines, Mr Obama has been under political pressure from his own side all year to tackle immigration reform, but has been distracted by battles over healthcare reform and financial regulation, and recently the BP oil spill.
Hispanic groups want the White House to back a Supreme Court challenge against the Arizona law, arguing that only the federal government should have the power to legislate on immigration. A national standard could be expected to override Arizona.
Rounding up and deporting 11 million people across the country was impossible, Mr Obama said yesterday.
The key reason for the President to push congress now is that his Democratic Party could lose its majorities in both houses of congress in November’s mid-term elections.
He is keen to help Democrats with large Hispanic populations, such as Senate majority leader Harry Reid from Nevada, who promised to act on immigration reform but has not delivered.
Republican senator Jon Kyl said Mr Obama had failed to say how he intended to bring illegal immigration under control.