Politics

Obama Immigration Speech Draws Complaints on Both Sides, May Not Move Needle

President Obama talks about an immigration policy overhaul during a speech at American University in Washington July 1. (AP Photo)

President Obama talks about an immigration policy overhaul during a speech at American University in Washington July 1. (AP Photo)

If President Obama was hoping to light a spark under immigration reform, he'd better get more matches. 

The president's speech last week outlining the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the system for processing both legal and illegal immigrants has been met with a collective yawn on both sides of the debate. 

Republicans resistant to any national overhaul before the borders are better secured accused the president of playing politics with the speech and gave no signs of budging in this election year. 

Latino leaders in Congress, meanwhile, praised Obama for finally delivering a high-profile speech on the issue, but other supporters of a national overhaul expressed disappointment that the president didn't go further and skepticism that it would move forward the stalled debate in Congress. 

"I think the president was right to speak up -- let's be honest, I wish he made the speech a few months ago. I wish he had made it a higher priority," Frank Sharry, director of immigration reform advocacy group America's Voice, told Fox News. He said Congress might be able to move on a bill after the elections but for now nothing is likely to happen. 

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In the midst of a highly competitive campaign season, Congress is still grappling with ways to tackle the sputtering economy. The Obama administration is distracted from its legislative agenda by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and is trying to place renewed focus on the Afghanistan war after installing Gen. David Petraeus to lead U.S. forces. Congress still needs to vote on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and bring up a financial overhaul bill for final passage. 

Obama's immigration speech may have been more of a reminder than a call to action. 

Sharry was among those who said Obama was merely rehashing ideas from former President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, in the eyes of those trying to revive such a package. 

But Andres Oppenheimer, a Latin American author and syndicated columnist who backs an immigration overhaul, said the president missed the opportunity to build on those ideas and signal that he was serious about pursuing them. 

In a column Sunday in The Miami Herald, Oppenheimer noted that Obama did not announce a bipartisan stakeholder meeting at the White House, as he did for the health care bill. 

"My opinion: Obama's speech was an effort to maintain the support of U.S. Hispanics," he wrote. "But Obama did not offer any carrots to Republicans nor any new ideas to sway public opinion toward much-needed immigration reform." 

The president also did not mention any deadlines, as he did during the health care debate - though those deadlines were frequently seen whizzing by. 

The language Obama used in his speech seemed to only embolden Senate Republicans who have all but rejected an immigration bill this year. Obama, saying last Thursday at American University that he would not "kick the can down the road," blamed "demagoguery" for Washington's inability to deal with the problem and pressed Republicans who supported a bill under the Bush administration to get back on board. 

One of those Republicans, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told Fox News after the speech that he wasn't basing his resistance on "demagoguery" and described the president's address as "very political." 

McCain, speaking on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, again called for stronger border security and defended his resistance to a comprehensive bill that would include a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants. 

"It is not the same as it was in 2007," McCain said, citing the rash of kidnappings in Phoenix and the level of violence in Mexico. "The situation has dramatically changed, and the statistics absolutely back that up." 

Congressmen who have been pleading with the Obama administration to make immigration a priority, though, praised the president for using the bully pulpit to try to steer the debate. 

"I am very encouraged. ... This was a hard-nosed argument for why reform will benefit America," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said in a written statement. "Now we need to move it forward. We have been waiting for the president to lean forward and push with us on the immigration issue the same way he did as a presidential candidate. We hope this is the start of a sustained push."