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Obama again to call for immigration reform; limited specifics, no timeline

EL PASO, Texas – President Obama today will try to “create a sense of urgency” here around the issue of immigration and once again call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, senior White House aides said.

But there will be few specifics in the president’s speech beyond a basic outline he laid out nearly a year ago in a July 2010 speech on the subject, and the president will not issue a deadline or a timeline, those advisers said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Early materials provided by the White House yesterday, previewing the president’s speech, noted he will “work to build bipartisan consensus in Congress.” That means it’s unlikely something passes or even get voted on before the 2012 election – though Democrats suggested yesterday it is possible there could be some kind of vote that would once again put Republicans on record.

A vote like that would be largely political, considering Democrats do not likely have the 60 votes necessary to advance a bill in the Senate. And it would face an even steeper hill in the House, which is controlled by Republicans. (The president is a supporter of the DREAM Act, which would give students brought to the United States illegally a path to citizenship. But it failed 55-41 in the Senate in December 2010 before Republicans’ congressional gains as a result of the 2010 midterm elections.)

It’s hard not to see politics in the president’s trip as well. In addition to the obvious importance of the demographic the president is speaking to – Hispanics are the largest-growing group (and voting bloc) in the country – Obama will also attend two fundraisers for his reelection campaign in Austin, Texas.

Raising the issue, Democrats hope, will get Republicans talking about immigration. It’s difficult for Republicans running for president to stake out a moderate position on the issue, because of the early primaries that attract hard-line conservative activists, staunchly opposed to anything that would give those in the country illegally a pathway to citizenship.

It practically derailed Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidential bid in 2008. McCain -- who was an advocate of the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, pushed by the Bush White House -- spent much of the 2008 cycle apologizing for his previous position on the issue.

While here, Obama will also tour a cargo facility at the Bridge of Americas Port of Entry, which the White House says is the “largest of four crossings that comprise the El Paso Port of Entry,” where about 10 percent of the nation’s border inspections take place.

In his July 2010 remarks at American University in Washington, 80 percent of which tried to build a moral argument for reform, the president laid out the following specifics:

-          The U.S. can’t grant blanket amnesty. But it also can’t just round up 11 million people and deport them.

-          He stressed there needed to be more accountability from government, businesses, and individuals.

-          Border security needed to be improved – although he touted then and will today that it is the most secure border there has ever been. But that the border is too vast to solve the problem simply with fences and border patrols alone.

-          He said there needed to be better employee-verification systems.

-          Individuals must admit they broke the law, register and pay taxes, pay a fine, learn English and get in line. At the same time, the government needed to streamline the immigration process, which has seen a tremendous backlog.

-          He said farms needed a legal way to hire workers and create a pathway for those workers to become legal.

-          And any immigration reform needed to include the DREAM Act.

The president has held at least three events in the past two months with a specific focus on immigration, including a May 3rd meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on “Fixing the Broken Immigration System,” an April 19th meeting with “Stakeholders” on the same topic, and a March 28th Hispanic education town hall, at which he pushed the DREAM Act. Immigration was also a focus on his commencement speech at Miami Dade College April 29. Miami Dade is a 90 percent minority school with a sizable Latino population.

In the next few weeks, the senior White House advisers said there will be a “campaign of sorts” to move “elevate the conversation” outside the Beltway with influential Latinos, business leaders, and law enforcement.

Later this week, the president will attend the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast; Tomorrow, there will be a conference call recapping the speech; Thursday is a roundtable in Omaha, NE, with the president’s chief technology officer and a “community conversation” in Silicon Valley, CA, hosted by Steve Case, AOL’s former CEO; May 19, there’s another conference call – this one with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis with Asian American and Pacific Island leaders; May 31, Solis hosts a roundtable in Albuquerque, NM.

Most importantly really are the demographics and what they potentially mean to the president’s reelection bid. Hispanics now make up 16% of the U.S. population, according to the latest U.S. Census data released this year. But they made up just 9% of the voting population in the 2008 presidential election. Obama won two-thirds (67%) of the Hispanics that voted, but that discrepancy, that undervote, is one Obama’s campaign hopes to exploit.

It was able to successfully register young voters and African Americans, helping candidate Obama to a resounding victory. There is room to do the same with Latinos.

So far, according to the latest NBC News poll, Hispanics overwhelmingly approve of the job the president is doing – 61% approved, 29% said they disapproved. In a hypothetical matchup with a generic Republican, Hispanics said they would probably vote for Obama by a 50%-28% margin.

The president’s appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has helped to engender the president to the group. But the community has also showed some frustration with the lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform, and the increased number of deportations under this administration.