President Obama sought to reassure his supporters at a Cinco de Mayo party in the White House on Wednesday that he wants a comprehensive immigration bill that not only bolsters border security but also provides a path to legalization for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
"I want to say it again, just in case anybody's confused: The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform," Obama said.
Obama caused much of the confusion to which he referred when last week he made remarks that left the impression that his commitment to the issue was faltering.
"I know there's been some commentary over the last week since I talked about this difficult issue," Obama said Wednesday. "Of course it's going to be tough; that's the truth.
"Anybody who tells you it's going to be easy or says I can wave a magic wand and make it happen hasn't been paying attention to how this town works."
No one would argue with that assertion.
A Controversial Issue
The difficult politics of immigration is the reason President George W. Bush tried and failed to pass a similar bill. Current polls show that the public is divided on whether to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The economic climate makes a vote on comprehensive reform even tougher.
But last week, when Obama told reporters there might not be an appetite on Capitol Hill for this controversial issue, many in the Hispanic community thought he was backing away from his commitment to push for an immigration bill as hard as he could.
"It angered a lot of us, to be blunt," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group. "Immigration reform is never going to be easy to pass, but we actually thought that the 2008 election was a game changer.
"Latino voters turned out in record numbers. We had a president who promised to move immigration reform during the first year of his presidency, and so the expectations have been very high and as a result I think the anger is getting just as high."
That anger manifested itself in big rallies last weekend, when 500,000 people in 90 cities turned out to protest Arizona's new immigration law.
Republicans lost support among Hispanic voters because they opposed an immigration overhaul. But this year it's Democrats who are being whipsawed by immigration politics. Amid tough economic times, many Democrats in Congress are reluctant to vote on a bill that includes legalization. But if they don't, they risk angering Hispanic voters, one of the most important parts of the Democratic base.
"Whether or not the president pays a price will really depend [to] some degree on whether he can convince the Latino community that he's really done enough and is really committed to get this done," said Simon Rosenberg, who runs a Democratic think tank involved with the immigration issue. "I think we still don't know the outcome of that."
Even if a bill can't pass out of Congress this year, the president has to show he tried hard to get it done, Rosenberg says. He points to polls that show Latinos still support Obama but are less inclined to vote this year than they were in 2008.
"They haven't seen progress in Washington and in the issues that matter most to them and their families -- which is immigration," he said. "If this state of play is the same as when we go into the fall elections, Democrats will be having disappointments across the country, there's no doubt."
Obama tried to head off that problem Wednesday when he said immigration reform can be done and needs to be done.
"I want to begin work this year, and I want Democrats and Republicans to work with me," he said.
The president will have another opportunity to talk about the issue May 19, when Mexico's leader arrives in Washington for an official state visit.