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Obama Pushes Changes To Immigration Law

President Obama is trying to jump-start the debate on overhauling the immigration system. He gave a speech on the U.S.-Mexican border Tuesday, and laid out his principles. He argued that fixing the system would give a boost to the economy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The president is also positioning himself on immigration. He gave a speech on the U.S.-Mexican border yesterday and offered principles for an immigration overhaul. And the president argued that fixing the immigration system would boost the economy. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama ran for office with a promise to Hispanic voters. He would pass a comprehensive immigration bill. But even with big democratic majorities in congress last year, he couldn't do it. Now he's trying again, challenging the Republicans to join him.

President BARACK OBAMA: The question is whether those in Congress who previously walked away in the name of enforcement are now ready to come back to the table and finish the work that we've started.

LIASSON: The president made an economic argument for an immigration overhaul, saying that one way to strengthen the middle class is to get rid of the underground economy that exploits illegal immigrants as a source of cheap labor and depresses wages for everyone else.

Then the president described in detail all the things his administration has done to beef up security at the border - twice as many border agents as in 2004, the border fence almost complete, more seizures of drugs and weapons. Mr. Obama said we've gone above and beyond what was requested by Republicans who said they'd support broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement.

Pres. OBAMA: Even though we've answered these concerns, I've got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.

Unidentified Man: They're racist.

Pres. OBAMA: You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now, they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: Maybe they want alligators in the moat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: Part of the White House enforcement push has been an increase in deportations, which are controversial among Hispanics - whose support the president needs for his reelection. Hispanic leaders want the Mr. Obama to stop deporting college-age illegal immigrants. But the president said the best way to protect those young people is to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay, if they enrolled in college or the military.

Pres. OBAMA: We passed the DREAM Act through the House last year when Democrats were in control. But even though it received a majority of votes in the Senate, it was blocked when several Republicans who had previously supported the DREAM Act voted no.

LIASSON: In addition to making the case that Republicans were the obstacle to immigration reform, President Obama laid out his principles for a bill: Border security; employment verification; and the immigrants themselves would have to admit they broke the law, pay a fine, learn English and then get in the back of the line for legalization. These are essentially the same elements that were in the bill President George W Bush tried and failed to pass.

Now, says Republican strategist John Feehery, immigration has become an even more difficult issue for Republicans.

Mr. JOHN FEEHERY (Founder, The Feehery Group): The business community desperately wants something to get done. Other people, in the Tea Party and other activists, want the government to focus exclusively on border security. So this is going to be a tough one. I think that the grassroots has to change on this, for something like that to get done.

LIASSON: Right now, there is no Republican in Congress supporting a comprehensive overhaul, so Mr. Obama is trying to create public pressure.

Pres. OBAMA: We've got leaders here and around the country helping to move the debate forward. But this change ultimately has to be driven by you, the American people. You've got to help us push for comprehensive reform. And you've got to identify what steps we can take right now - like the DREAM Act like visa reform areas where we can find common ground among Democrats and Republicans and begin to fix what's broken.

LIASSON: That suggests that if President Obama can't get a big comprehensive bill, he'll take what he can.

Today, a group of Democrats in the Senate are reintroducing the DREAM Act. In the lame-duck session of Congress it got a majority in the Senate, but not enough votes to break a Republican filibuster. Now with their smaller majority, Democrats would need even more Republican votes to pass it.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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