EL PASO, Texas — President Barack Obama, visiting the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time in office, argued Tuesday that security has been improved enough that it's time for the nation to revamp its immigration policies.
Jabbing at critics in campaign style, he cast the debate as a fight with Republicans who have set unreasonable targets, after backing away from a comprehensive overhaul amid pressure for a security-first approach.
"They wanted a fence. Well, that fence is now basically complete," he said, drawing boos from hundreds of people on hand at a border park. "Maybe they'll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat. They'll never be satisfied."
Republicans accused the president of trying to gin up the Hispanic vote, which he dominated in 2008, as his re-election campaign gets underway. And they disputed Obama's contention that the border has been largely secured, noting that drug cartels that have ravaged Mexico are threatening to operate more inside the U.S.
Obama, in trying to pressure Congress to tackle immigration after setting it aside for four years, devoted hardly any of his speech to the most gnarly issue: what to do about the 11 million or more illegal immigrants already in the country.
Instead, he framed the need to change immigration laws as an economic imperative, emphasizing the loss of talented U.S.-educated foreigners who leave universities ready to create jobs and businesses, only to find they aren't allowed to stay in the country.
He touted the investments and progress made on security in recent years: doubling the number of Border Patrol agents since 2004, to an all time high along the Southwest border, screening all southbound rail traffic for illicit guns and cash that fuel the Mexican drug cartels, tripling the number of intelligence analysts working with Mexico to disrupt smugglers.
"We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement," he said.
He gave only an outline of a possible package: Government should secure the border and enforce laws, and businesses should be held accountable "if they exploit undocumented workers."
As for a path to citizenship for the millions of people in the U.S. illegally, Obama offered only the barest outline, though the White House released more details afterward. Illegal immigrants would have to register and, to stay in the country, pass background checks; pay registration fees and fines; learn English; and pay any back taxes.
After eight years in this country, they could become permanent legal residents, eligible for citizenship five years after that.
It wasn't clear if the clock would start when such a law was enacted, or if illegal immigrants would get credit for time already in the United States without permission, but in any case, Republicans quickly rejected the plan as "amnesty" for law-breakers.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called it "ironic that President Obama would travel so close to the border and still be so far from reality. It is clear President Obama is in full campaign mode."
Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, said Obama would have learned more about the "broken border" if he'd gone to Tucson instead of El Paso, where far more illegal immigrants are regularly caught.
Later, Obama's Texas visit — his fifth as president — turned expressly political, as he raised $2 million for the Democratic Party in Austin. The first event, at Austin City Limits Live, featured musician Robert Earl Keen and was expected to draw 750 people.
"I love Texas. I especially love Austin," he said. "It was always one of my favorite places to come during the campaign, and I intend to drop by a few more times."
The second event was a dinner for 50 big-dollar donors.
Even some allies have been skeptical about Obama's commitment on immigration, noting how long he's waited to tackle the issue or visit the border, despite a campaign pledge to push immigration reform within his first year.
Across the street from the Chamizal National Memorial Park, where Obama spoke, some protesters urged the president to make good on his promise to push for a comprehensive package, while others voiced suspicion that the visit was more politics than real substance.
"You Promised Reform," one side read. Another urged Obama to bypass Congress: "Executive Order. Yes, you can."
"I just hope we're not just guinea pigs," said Olivia Romero, 31, "that Obama will fight for reform and not take us for a ride as campaign bait so he can get re-elected."
Eliseo Medina, international secretary of the Service Employees International Union, a key organization that's been pushing for immigration changes, said he sees a "real possibility that both sides can come together this time. The president has been very vocal, committed, and he's bringing in new people to the debate.
"We were almost there in 2001," he added. "I really thought we were close, but 9/11 ruined everything."
Immigration-overhaul opponents protested, too. One man's sign read: "President Obama: Respect the Rule of Law. No Amnesty. Deport."
Mary Holmsley, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, stressed her party is not anti-immigrant but wants "legal, orderly migration, and we hope President Obama can fulfill that without amnesty."
With Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Obama toured a cargo facility at the Bridge of the Americas, one of the nation's busiest border crossings. The park where he spoke overlooks Ciudad Juarez, the city that has taken the brunt of Mexico's drug war violence — more than 8,000 of more than 35,000 killings nationwide since late 2006.
El Paso itself, though, remains one of the safest U.S. cities of its size, and Obama emphasized the importance of lawful trade that clogs the bridges and creates thousands of jobs. Overall U.S.-Mexico trade amounts to about $1 billion each day.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who will chair a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on border security, said Obama was glossing over the fact that drug cartels have grown bolder inside the United States, even if data on spillover crime doesn't yet reflect that.
"The president is not giving the American people a complete picture of security on our border with Mexico," he said.
AT A GLANCE:
Under President Barack Obama's immigration proposals, illegal immigrants seeking citizenship would have to:
—Register and submit to background checks.
—Not have been convicted of crimes or otherwise deemed national security threats.
—Pay a registration fee, fines and any back taxes they owe.
—Learn English and civics.
—Wait eight years for permanent residency and five more for citizenship.
SOURCE: White House
(c) 2011, The Dallas Morning News.
Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.