WASHINGTON Emboldened by the large turnout of Hispanic voters in last week's general election, U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday he plans to move quickly to address what he has called the biggest failure of his first term - comprehensive immigration reform.
"Before the election, I had given a couple of interviews where I predicted that the Latino vote was going to be strong and that that would cause some reflection on the part of Republicans about their position on immigration reform. I think we're starting to see that already," Obama said at his first press conference since winning re-election.
"And my expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration," he added.
The U.S. presidential inauguration is in January, and Obama, a Democrat, said his staff and members of Congress are already beginning to have conversations "about what this would look like." He added that he is "very confident that we can get immigration reform done."
A legislative package would include strengthening border security, penalties for employers that hire undocumented workers, and an avenue for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States to gain citizenship, he said. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the country in 2010.
In a frank moment during the campaign, Obama told Univision, the Spanish-language television network, that "my biggest failure so far is we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done."
Stymied by Congress in his attempts to address immigration, Obama issued an order in June allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to avoid deportation and obtain work permits. It was based on stalled legislation known as the "DREAM Act."
Obama also said he would like Congress to put that order into law soon.
HISPANIC VOTERS' SUPPORT
Obama won an estimated 66 percent of the Hispanic vote in last Tuesday's presidential election, according to Reuters/Ipsos election-day polling, at a time when the Latino population is growing rapidly in states such as Florida, a perpetual battleground in U.S. politics.
Those results have pushed Republicans to reconsider how to work with this emerging influential bloc. There are an estimated 24 million eligible Hispanic voters in the United States and Pew expects that number to nearly double to 40 million by 2030.
John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, said last week that the country's immigration system was broken, although he did not offer solutions and said Obama had to take the lead.
Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan said on Wednesday there is a window of opportunity for the United States and Mexico to work together on comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 and 2014.
"I think a lot of work has been done these past years to recobble the coalition of the private sector, of NGOs, of unions, of employers to come together and - if the time is ready - to try and put together a package that will have the ability to be sold not only to Congress but to the American public," he told the Inter-American Dialogue, a foreign policy think tank focused on the Western Hemisphere.
Immigration reform had in the past enjoyed bipartisan support, with former Republican President George W. Bush and Republican Senator John McCain both leading voices on the issue. But Republicans in the Senate in the last few years have blocked legislation over concerns about border security.
"This has not historically been a partisan issue," Obama said on Wednesday. "So, we need to seize the moment."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Doug Palmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)