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Obama on Immigration Reform: "I Need a Dance Partner"

President Obama today blamed Republicans for his administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, saying several conservative lawmakers who once supported the measure have buckled under political pressure.

President Barack Obama gestures to the audience at a fundraiser at Austin City Limits Live on May 10, 2011.

President Obama today blamed Republicans for his administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, saying several conservative lawmakers who once supported the measure have buckled under political pressure.

“Let's be honest; I need a dance partner here, and the floor is empty,” he told an audience at the annual National Council of La Raza conference in Washington, D.C. “Five years ago, 23 Republican senators supported comprehensive immigration reform because they knew it was the right thing to do for the economy and it was the right thing to do for America. Today they’ve walked away.”

It was the president’s latest effort to address mounting pressure from Latinos who feel his promise to overhaul the nation’s immigration system was just campaign fodder. Instead, many argue, Obama has employed an enforcement-only campaign that separates immigrant families.

His administration is on pace to prosecute more immigrants for illegal entry in fewer than three years than President George W. Bush’s administration did in eight.

In his speech, the president didn’t mention the statistic, but said he understood what current laws mean for the undocumented.

“We have a system that separates families and punishes innocent young people for their parents' actions by denying them the chance to earn an education or contribute to our economy or serve in our military,” he said. “These are the laws on the books. And I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know very well the real pain and heartbreak that deportations cause.”

His address drew a harsh rebuke from immigrants’ rights groups, including the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

“Despite soaring rhetoric, the President's unbridled enforcement of unjust and outdated immigration laws has contributed to an unprecedented civil rights crisis for our community,” NDLON director Pablo Alvarado said in a statement. “It is not enough for him to blame Congress or to bemoan the difficulty of his job. He can — and must — take action to protect members of our community who are under siege.”

That “action” includes using his executive authority to dismantle state-based immigration laws and suspend the federal government’s controversial Secure Communities program, Alvarado said.

Obama said using his executive powers that way would go against the way the country operates, though he injected some levity, saying the thought had crossed his mind recently.

“Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting,” he said, referring to the current gridlock over the debt ceiling. “But that’s not how our system works, that’s not how our democracy functions, that’s not how our Constitution is written.”

Obama offered no timeline for finding an immigration solution, but he vowed to continue to push for immigration reform and took one more swipe at Republicans.

“Feel free to keep the heat on me, and keep the heat on Democrats," he said. "But here’s the only thing you should know: The Democrats and your president are with you. Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws."

Even before the president spoke, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement signaling Obama and the Democrats should prepare for battle should they propose reform.

“With the national debt at $14.5 trillion, it’s unbelievable that President Obama continues to call for amnesty legislation,” he said. “Illegal immigrants have contributed to our debt crisis — they pay little, if any, in income taxes and drain taxpayer dollars.”

Earlier this month, Smith introduced the Hinder the Administration’s Legalization Temptation (HALT) Act, which would prevent immigration officers from using prosecutorial discretion when choosing which illegal immigrants to deport. Smith called the discretion Obama’s attempt at “backdoor amnesty.” The bill is scheduled for a hearing in Smith’s committee Tuesday.

Also tomorrow, thousands of supporters of the DREAM Act — proposed legislation that would create a path to legal residency for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children — plan to rally at the Capitol to encourage the president to move on the controversial legislation.

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