By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 11:17 AM
President Obama said late Wednesday that "there may not be an appetite" to overhaul the nation's immigration laws this year, even though he believes there is a pressing need to do so.
"It's a matter of political will," Obama said during a rare visit to the press section of his presidential plane. He added, "This is a difficult issue. It generates a lot of emotions. . . . I need some help on the Republican side."
Obama has called repeatedly for comprehensive immigration reform, saying he wants to tighten control of the nation's borders but also chart a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are in this country illegally.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said last week that he wanted to push forward with legislation regardless of whether lawmakers can forge a bipartisan compromise. But he later backed off that pledge, and Obama told reporters on the plane that he is willing to wait in order to work with Republican senators.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Reid and Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) are forging a proposal that would call for more border security measures before expanding citizenship options.
In his remarks to reporters, Obama cited the bruising battle over health care and the current debate on financial regulatory reform and an energy bill, as well as November's midterm congressional elections, as reasons an immigration bill might have to wait.
"We've gone through a tough year, and I've been working Congress pretty hard," the president said. "So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue."
Obama applauded negotiations on immigration legislation between Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and said he would like to see a working group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle craft "serious legislation that solves the border problem and solves the wide range of issues that we face under immigration reform in a way that can garner the support of the American people."
He did not address the reported effort by Reid, Schumer and Menendez.
Obama condemned a tough new immigration law signed last week by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), which criminalizes illegal immigration by defining it as trespassing and allows local law enforcement agencies to question people they suspect of being undocumented. "That carries a great amount of risk that core values that we all care about are breached," the president said.
The White House and the Justice Department are weighing whether to sue Arizona in an effort to prevent the law from being implemented.
At the same time, Obama said he could understand the frustration that many Americans feel about seeing large numbers of people enter this country without permission, especially during hard economic times and in border states.
"If you've got hundreds of thousands of people coming in, not playing by the rules, that's a problem," Obama said. "And the federal government has been abdicating on its responsibilities for a very long time on this issue."