WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday faced pressure to help create jobs in African-American communities and deliver an immigration overhaul even as he tried to push healthcare reform across the finish line.
Back-to-back White House meetings with representatives from the black and Hispanic communities were evidence of the long list of priorities that challenge Obama and lawmakers ahead of November congressional elections.
African-American members of Congress said they told the president that job creation is critical to their communities and that federal resources should be directed toward workforce training, specifically for infrastructure projects.
Unemployment among black Americans was 15.8 percent in February, compared to the overall jobless rate of 9.7 percent nationally.
“We talked about the desperation that we’re feeling in our communities throughout the country,” Democratic Representative Barbara Lee, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said on the White House driveway with a phalanx of other lawmakers beside her.
A White House statement issued after the meeting said participants agreed there are a number of ways to improve employment, such as summer youth employment, job training tied to apprenticeships, and ensuring fair access to contract jobs created through the federal economic stimulus.
Obama spent an hour meeting with officials from immigration advocacy groups who pressed him on an issue that did not feature highly in the president’s first year, which was dominated by fixing the economy and healthcare.
Afterward, Obama pledged his “unwavering” commitment to getting an immigration deal.
“We leave the meeting today feeling hopeful,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza. “The president took an hour of his time to have a conversation, not to give a speech and that is significant.”
She said that “there were commitments made about truly seeing this issue moving forward and the White House getting engaged to help in that process.”
Afterward, Obama held talks with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to hear their ideas on a bipartisan approach to revamping the U.S. immigration system after the last attempt died in Congress in 2007.
“I look forward to reviewing their promising framework, and every American should applaud their efforts to reach across party lines and find common sense answers to one of our most vexing problems,” Obama said in a statement after the meeting.
Graham said he and Schumer have explored several ideas on how to move ahead on the issue — securing borders, moving toward a biometric Social Security card to ensure illegal workers cannot get jobs, creation of a temporary worker program and “a rational plan to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.”
Since the 2007 debate, the Homeland Security Department has stepped up enforcement along the lengthy U.S. border with Mexico, completing 643 miles of fencing out of a planned 652 miles. It has added agents to the border and also cracked down on those who violate immigration law by overstaying their visas.
Besides concentrating on healthcare, Obama is also seeking steps to trigger U.S. job creation, increase oversight of Wall Street and revamp American energy practices.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Jeff Mason; Editing by Cynthia Osterman