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President Meets With Pro-Reform Advocates On Immigration

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The first of the President’s three meetings today on immigration is in the books, and this one was a little unexpected. This afternoon at the White House, a group of pro-reform immigrant advocates were slated to meet with senior White House staff regarding the need for immigration reform, but the President showed up to chair the meeting himself.

The President is scheduled to meet with Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the bipartisan immigration bill they have been crafting and are expected to introduce shortly. President Obama also has a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on his schedule this evening to discuss immigration and health care.

The advocates were expecting perhaps a courtesy drop-by from the President and were prepared to push back on any niceties or the President’s famous charm. Earlier in the week, religious, union, ethnic, and immigrant advocates got the White House's attention with a sharply worded press conference at the National Press Club highlighting how the lack of immigration reform – and the continued enforcement of the old, bad system – is devastating immigrant communities and hurting the economy.

The advocates – many of whom are helping to organizing the March For America on the National Mall on March 21 – want the President’s personal commitment to push hard for immigration reform. By this they mean more than just talk. They want to see him rolling up his sleeves and expending political capital to sell it to Democrats, Republicans, and the American people.

Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum and one of the key leaders of the Reform Immigration for America campaign that is sponsoring the March For America, issued a statement after the meeting:

We had a lively and straightforward meeting with the President and his staff. We made clear that we expect him to keep his promise to overhaul our broken immigration system. We need a system that is fair, just, humane, and that serves our nation's interests.

The President indicated that his administration is committed to driving a bill forward in the spring of 2010. Based on our conversation, we are optimistic and expecting aggressive and urgent action from the White House on comprehensive immigration reform before March 21st.

As one person who was in today’s meeting characterized it, it was a good, lengthy, and substantive exchange. The President made some opening remarks but did not deliver a speech. Rather he engaged in a dialogue.

More than 387,000 people were deported from the United States in 2009, the advocates said, and if anything, immigration enforcement has gotten worse for immigrant communities since President Bush left office. The Obama administration has tried to reorder priorities so that enforcement resources are targeted towards deporting violent criminals and others who pose a threat to society -- not just average workers and family members who are in the country illegally.

Regardless of the administration’s intentions, the reality is that the fear of deportation persists and the uncertainty that that creates in families is palpable, advocates said.

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns for the Latino civil rights group NCLR, said she is waiting to see what happens in the President’s later meetings with the Senators and Representatives and what the President does in the coming days, before pronouncing the meeting a success or failure.

"We want the President to be specific, we want him to be passionate, and we want him to be persistent in his pursuit of reform this year. Our communities are suffering, the American people want progress, and the economy needs all the help it can get and immigration reform is part of that," she said.

In a statement before the meeting, Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform advocacy group, said,

Our broken immigration system is not serving the interests of Americans, yet we have within our grasp the ability to solve this problem in a way that reduces illegal immigration dramatically, while creating millions of new taxpayers that will generate billions in new revenue.

If the President hopes to make a public commitment to immigration reform before the March for America on March 21, he doesn’t have much time. He is leaving the country next week for Indonesia and Australia.