Updated: 8:42 p.m.
President Barack Obama on Thursday committed to helping to produce a framework for bipartisan immigration reform legislation by March 21 and vowed to press for Senate action on the issue during a hastily called meeting with grass-roots activists.
Obama met for more than an hour with 10 immigrant advocacy groups who, not by coincidence, are the same groups planning a Washington, D.C., rally to protest the administration’s lack of action on the issue. The rally, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of people, is set for March 21, the same day that the groups are demanding an immigration reform outline from the president.
Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza said the “unequivocal purpose” of Thursday’s meeting was to deliver the message that the community wants to “advance comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Not later, not after another election, but this year.”
Proponents of immigration reform have grown increasingly frustrated with Obama for not making the issue more of a priority, particularly since he broke a promise to pass reform in his first year in office. Some say they reached a tipping point when, during his State of the Union address, Obama made only scant reference to their issue.
But the president at least appears to be stepping up his game on the issue. In addition to meeting with grass-roots groups, Obama met Thursday afternoon with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for an update on their efforts to advance immigration reform legislation. Thursday evening, he is meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
During his meeting with activists, Obama pledged to work with Schumer and Graham to nail down a final outline for immigration reform legislation by March 21. And while he couldn’t commit to making it happen, he vowed to work with Senate leaders to try to bring a bill to the floor. He gave no details on a timeline.
Activists exiting the meeting called the session “productive” and “encouraging,” although some said the next two weeks will be the true test of Obama’s commitment to their cause.
“We’re waiting for him to show us results,” said Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“We believe that his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is real, but we also know we want results. So that’s what we’re going to be expecting within the next couple of weeks,” Salas said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president “absolutely” wants to get something done this year on immigration reform, but that it won’t happen if Republicans don’t help.
“The only way we get this through the House and the Senate is with bipartisan support,” Gibbs said during his Thursday briefing.
Gibbs said Graham is “pretty well-positioned” to see what it will take to bring more Republicans on board with immigration reform, which historically has drawn bipartisan support.
“Where are Republicans that were for reform in 2005 and 2006 and 2007 and 2008? Where are they now in 2010?” Gibbs asked.
Advocates said they too are going to target Republicans in their efforts to advance their cause. Over the past year, GOP lawmakers have largely steered clear of the issue as Democrats have differed on how to proceed.
Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union said he is sending a letter Thursday to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to ask them for a meeting on the issue.
Immigration reform “is an issue that needs to be addressed not just by Democrats, but by the Republican Party as well,” Medina said.
At least one conservative GOP lawmaker is already rebuffing the idea of advancing a comprehensive bill that includes a path to legalization for illegal immigrants.
“Americans have rejected amnesty in 2006 and 2007, and they will reject it again if the Obama administration tries to force it upon them. It is wrong to reward immigration lawbreakers,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.
Correction: March 11, 2010
An earlier version of this story indicated that President Barack Obama told immigration reform advocates that he would push for a bill to pass in April. He never gave a specific timeline.