EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama issued an impassioned call for immigration reform in a speech at the U.S.-Mexican border on Tuesday, sending a message to Hispanics whose votes he needs to win re-election next year.
Obama, whose 2012 chances depend largely on the health of the U.S. economy, made the case that immigration reform would have economic benefits for the middle class and for businesses while also improving national security.
“One way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else,” he said.
“That’s why immigration reform is an economic imperative.”
Tightening immigration laws -- and opposing the idea of giving “amnesty” to those who broke the law sneaking into the country -- has become a rallying cry for many Republicans who want a clampdown to keep drug crime from crossing the border.
Obama sought to portray Republicans’ resistance to fixing problems with the U.S. immigration system as evidence they were hostile to the interests of Latino voters.
But he offered no concrete policy initiatives or timelines for introducing broad legislation, underscoring the fact that he is unlikely to advance any major overhaul before the 2012 presidential election.
Efforts to tighten security along the U.S.-Mexican border, including a $600 million bill signed in August to hire 1,500 border patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials, have already had an impact, the president stressed.
”The truth is, the measures we’ve put in place are getting
results. Over the past two and a half years, we’ve seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, 64 percent more weapons than ever before,” Obama said.
But Obama said opponents of immigration would never be happy, despite any tight controls that have been put in place.
“They wanted a fence,” he said, to boos from the crowd, speaking in shirtsleeves on a hot, sunny day at a park within sight of the border. “Well, that fence is now basically complete.”
“Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat,” he said.
Obama’s failure to get broader legislation on immigration through Congress has upset many Hispanic voters, especially because the United States deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants last year.
The 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States represent 16 percent of the population and are the fastest-growing U.S. minority group. They voted for Obama by a margin of more than two-to-one in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
The White House said his trip and regular meetings with advocates for reform were part of a strategy to prod Congress into action despite the odds against it.
Obama flew from El Paso to Austin, Texas, where he spoke at two campaign fundraisers expected to bring in a total of $2 million. The first, attended by 750 people, was at a downtown theater and the second was a dinner for 50 at a private home.
The 800 people paid anything from $44 -- a rate for students -- to the legal maximum of $35,800 to attend.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, declined an invitation to meet with Obama on his trip -- a sign of the political divide on the issue.
There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, many of them Latin Americans who crossed the 2,000 mile frontier with Mexico.
Obama has pledged repeatedly to fix the U.S. immigration system to address citizenship concerns and make it easier for businesses to plan, but the issue has taken a back seat to other matters such as economic recovery and healthcare reform.
A senior administration official said the cost of a broad overhaul would be $54 billion, but the revenue increase would be $66 billion by adding new taxpayers.
Obama stressed that leading Republicans -- including former President George W. Bush -- have backed immigration reform in the past, and called for bipartisan action.
The president will need to convince Hispanics something will happen on the issue if he wins a second term, said Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution.
“If this group who has been promised over Obama’s presidency, but also Bush‘s, that things were going to change, if they keep getting disappointed, it’s hard to say what that is going to mean,” Singer said.
In December the “Dream Act,” which would have given a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, failed to pass -- a disappointment for many Hispanic Americans.
Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth, Tim Gaynor and Jeff Mason; editing by Anthony Boadle and Laura MacInnis