WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border on Tuesday to court Hispanic voters and renew his call for Congress to overhaul immigration policy.
He called it an "economic imperative" and said he's upheld his commitment to strengthen border security and enforcement. In turn, the president said Republicans and some resistant fellow Democrats should "come back to the table" to create a way to grant legal status to the nation's 11 million undocumented workers and expand visa programs.
"We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement," Obama said in El Paso, Texas. "All the stuff they asked for, we've done."
Obama also said the federal government has 20,000 Border Patrol agents, more than twice the 2004 level, and triple the number of intelligence analysts with responsibility for the border. He said unmanned aerial vehicles patrol the border from California to Texas and 100 percent of southbound rail shipments are screened for guns and money.
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Obama said that since he took office, the government has seized 31 percent more drugs at the border, 75 percent more currency, and 64 percent more weapons, and that border apprehensions are down almost 40 percent, indicating that fewer people are trying to cross.
Obama predicted that some critics will "want a higher fence" or "alligators in the moat; they'll never be satisfied," but he insisted, "The measures we put in place are getting results."
Still, immigration-overhaul advocates say an overhaul is unlikely to pass Congress between now and the November 2012 elections.
Politically, Obama is betting that promoting the issue could pay off anyhow by increasing Latino voter turnout and support for Democrats. His emphasis on balancing increased enforcement with finding a path to citizenship for those already here is designed to appeal to centrist voters and to ratchet up pressure on Congress.
The Latino vote is becoming more influential. The Pew Hispanic Center found Latinos in November's midterm elections were 6.9 percent of all voters, up from 5.8 percent in the 2006 midterms. Latinos remain underrepresented at the polls, though. Census data shows that more than 16 percent of the nation's population is Hispanic.
Some states with large Hispanic populations are swing states, such as Arizona, Colorado and Florida. In North Carolina, a longtime red state where Obama won in 2008, the Latino population has doubled over the past decade.
Last month, weeks after announcing his re-election campaign, Obama and his Cabinet officers began meeting with high-profile Hispanic celebrities and immigration and civil rights activists.
Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, said advocates are pleased to see Obama using his bully pulpit after months of inaction but want more than talk.
"Clearly the White House in the last couple of weeks has shown a heightened interest," she said. "I think it escapes no one that the political environment makes the fate of this uncertain."
Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, which opposes "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, said Obama's speech "made sense for 2012 electioneering politics, but it made no sense for policy. He seemed to be saying we have to keep the 8 million illegal foreign workers in their current jobs so that they can somehow or another create jobs for the 22 million Americans who can't find a full-time job.
"He just wants to inspire the pro-amnesty voters to not give up on him," Beck said. "No matter what he does, Congress is not going to vote in amnesty."
Polling suggests Obama's approach does have some appeal beyond Hispanics. Seventy-two percent of Americans favor giving illegal immigrants already in the United States a way to become citizens if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found in a March survey. In the same survey, 78 percent of Americans also favored strengthening immigration enforcement.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says immigrants have a net positive impact on the middle class. The group supports a mix of enforcement, expanded legal status for undocumented workers and expanding temporary worker programs.
Randy Johnson, senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the business lobby, called Obama's effort "a long shot, but not impossible." Johnson said there is "a general recognition that Hispanics are a growing influence in the polls; they are key to the future successes of the Republican Party."
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday that getting a comprehensive overhaul in the near future is worthy, but "may not be realistic."
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Obama "has once again put on his campaigner-in-chief hat," but in terms of legislation, "it is unlikely the president will succeed anytime soon."
"The non-partisan Government Accountability Office has found that only 44 percent of the border is under the operational control of the Border Patrol, and only 15 percent is under actual control. Mr. President, 44 percent is a failing grade."
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