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Obama To Lay Groundwork For Immigration Debate


President Obama's dipping a toe into some treacherous waters - immigration policy. He's invited a small group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers to the White House to talk about the issue. Aides say Mr. Obama hopes to start a formal debate on immigration later this year, but the White House is deliberately keeping their expectations in check, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama won applause from a Latino group last week when he said he's committed to passing what he called comprehensive immigration reform. Speaking at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama said that reform should include both tighter security at the nation's borders and the path to legalize millions of undocumented workers who've already put down roots here.

President BARACK OBAMA: For those who wish to become citizens we should require them to pay a penalty and pay taxes, learn English, go to the back of the line behind those who played by the rules. That is the fair, practical and promising way forward. And that's what I'm committed to passing as president of the United States.

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HORSLEY: Mr. Obama made similar promises during the presidential race and he carried Latino voters in November by a two to one margin. Late last week, though, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs bluntly acknowledged the President's pledge is not ready to be put to the test.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): We know the votes aren't there right now.

HORSLEY: Indeed. The comprehensive plan outlined by Mr. Obama sounds much like those that died in Congress in 2006 and again in 2007 when opponents railed against what they called amnesty. Gibbs suggested the political atmosphere for immigration reform hasn't improved much since then.

Mr. GIBBS: I mean, obviously, look, if you put up just what was out there we're going to have to look through that and other ideas.

HORSLEY: Gibbs did not say what sweeteners might be added to boost support for an immigration bill, but the president's guest list today includes lawmakers who've favored and opposed a path to citizenship in the past.

California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration, says she hopes the meeting will serve as step one.

Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California): I do think that with presidential leadership we have unique opportunity to move forward. I think if you look at the polling data, by very large margins the American public is ready to resolve this and move on.

HORSLEY: Indeed. A survey this spring by the Pew Research Center found 63 percent of Americans favor a path towards citizenship for illegal immigrants. But as Pew President Andrew Kohut notes, support was almost that strong two years ago when reform died no Capitol Hill.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): I remember listening to President Bush saying he was appealing to the moderate majority of Americans on this issue. And there really was a moderate majority. And I think the problem from Bush's point of view and from this issue's point of view is the moderates are quieter than the opponents.

HORSLEY: Opponents have already been bombarding the White House and lawmakers with messages warning that allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country would depress wages and contribute to overpopulation.

While the president has not shied away from other battles over health care or energy policy, for example, he's appeared content to let this one simmer. Immigration advocate Jaime Soto, the Catholic bishop of Sacramento, calls today's twice postponed meeting a moment of truth to see just how serious about immigration Mr. Obama is.

Bishop JAIME SOTO (Immigration advocate): What I'm afraid of is the tendency to want to put this off into the future and in a certain sense kind of the manana syndrome. And what I want to hear is that they are ready to engage this issue and to move it now.

HORSLEY: White House spokesman Gibbs insists the president is serious about pursuing immigration reform. But he won't be pinned down about timing, whether it's manana, later in the fall or sometime next year.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.