WASHINGTON President Barack Obama said on Friday he expects Congress to overhaul the country's immigration system, an issue that fires up emotions on both sides of the political divide, by "early next year."
Speaking to Hispanic reporters at the White House, Obama said he hopes a bill for comprehensive immigration reform will be drafted by the end of this year.
Obama tapped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on June 25 to work with Congress to speed up immigration reform as senators warned another failed effort could doom chances for a generation.
Obama said he asked Napolitano to meet regularly with lawmakers to systematically work through a number of controversial issues, such as how to handle the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States and how to prevent future illegal immigration.
"We have convened a meeting of all the relevant stakeholders, and Secretary Napolitano is working with the group to start creating the framework for a comprehensive immigration reform," the president said.
Congress failed in 2006 and 2007 to pass immigration reform despite a push by former Republican President George W. Bush.
Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. economic slump and soaring unemployment made it a bad time to take on the issue.
Obama has been criticized for not following through on a campaign pledge to tackle the issue this year. He has urged the Democratic-controlled Congress to start pushing now to pass legislation.
Asked if an immigration bill would have enough votes to pass Congress, Obama said he did not know. He also noted as a further complication that next year is an election year.
Obama joked that his opponents had another reason to block his immigration reform effort: "There are many members of the Republican Party who think now that I am illegal immigrant," he said.
Anti-Obama activists have claimed that the president, the son of a Kenyan man and a U.S. woman, was born in Kenya and ineligible to be U.S. president.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, editing by Philip Barbara)