WASHINGTON — President Obama said Wednesday that he wants to begin work this year on legislation overhauling the U.S. immigration system, firming up his commitment on a key priority for Latino voters and lawmakers.
Obama's comments at a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House reaffirmed his long-held support for immigration reform. He went a step further than he has in the past by calling for the work to begin this year.
Latino groups have been urging Obama to deliver on his campaign promise of making immigration reform a top priority, with some activists and lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus complaining he was not doing enough.
Obama clouded the issue last week by saying "there may not be an appetite" in Congress to deal with another hot-button issue immediately after grueling fights over health care and financial regulation.
Obama acknowledged immigration reform would be difficult to achieve and would require bipartisan support, which is lacking in the Senate right now. And he made no commitment to finishing the process this year.
Nevertheless, he said it was the only way to deal with the nation's immigration problems.
"The way to fix our broken immigration system is through commonsense comprehensive immigration reform," the president said.
"I want to begin work this year, and I want Democrats and Republicans to work with me."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is up for re-election in a state with a growing Latino population, said recently that he wants to tackle immigration reform this year, although pending energy legislation, another divisive issue, probably would come first.
Reid released draft immigration legislation last week with Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez, that urges more federal enforcement agents and other border security-tightening benchmarks before illegal immigrants could become legal U.S. residents.
Obama praised that proposal Wednesday. But the one Republican who has been willing to work with Democrats on the issue recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham, has balked at moving ahead this year.
The focus is on the Senate because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear that the Senate must act first on immigration before she would force her Democrats into another tough and probably politically dangerous vote.
Again Wednesday Obama denounced the law passed in Arizona that requires police to question people about their immigration status if the officer had reason to suspect they are in the country illegally. Some fear the law could lead to racial profiling, and Obama said federal officials were monitoring it for possible civil rights violations.
The president cited the Arizona law as a reason for action on immigration legislation.
"Make no mistake, our immigration system is broken, and after so many years in which Washington has failed to meet its responsibilities Americans are right to be frustrated.... But the answer isn't to undermine fundamental principles that defines us as a nation " Obama said.
"Comprehensive reform: that's how we're going to solve this problem," he said.