WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama called on Republicans to back reforms to bring 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows, but his foes swiftly accused him of cynical "political pandering."
After 18 months in office, and repeated vows to fight for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama delivered the first big speech of his presidency on the issue, laying out broad parameters for reform.
But he did not offer new initiatives likely to break the gridlock and did not set a timetable for action.
Few political observers believe immigration reform will pass before November`s mid-term elections, and many suspect a bid to appease Hispanic voters, a crucial Democratic constituency.
"The politics of who is and who is not allowed to enter this country, and on what terms, has always been contentious," Obama said at American University in Washington.
"That remains true today and it`s made worse by a failure of those of us in Washington to fix a broken immigration system."
Since the Democrats lost their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate this year, they have needed Republicans to cross the aisle to pass major legislation.
But there are few signs of any appetite for immigration reform in the minority party, and some heartland Democrats also seem reluctant to bring illegal workers into the above board economy in tough economic times.
Obama bemoaned the fact that immigration reform had been "held hostage to political posturing and special interest wrangling" and the notion that tackling the issue was bad politics.
"I`m ready to move forward. The majority of Democrats are ready to move forward. And I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward," Obama said, before warming to his political message.
"But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem.
"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality."
First signs were not encouraging for Obama`s initiative.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said it was Obama who was guilty of political posturing.
"The president`s call for immigration reform is little more than cynical political pandering to his left wing political base and is more about giving backdoor amnesty to illegal immigrants than real reform," Hatch said.
Hatch warned that criminals, gangs, drug dealers and human traffickers were crossing the US-Mexico border "in droves."
"Rather than playing politics with the issue, the administration should listen to the American people and secure the border," he added.
Jon Kyl, a Republican senator who represents Arizona -- where critics say a recently passed state immigration law promotes racial profiling -- said Obama had his priorities wrong.
"All Americans would be better served if this administration focused on implementing proven border security solutions rather than engaging in demagoguery and criticizing states that have been left to enforce immigration law because of the federal government`s unwillingness to do so," Kyl said.
The venue for Thursday`s speech was symbolic to Obama. It was at American University in 2008 that he received the endorsement of Democratic icon Senator Edward Kennedy -- in a huge boost to his presidential primary campaign.
Kennedy was a long-time advocate of immigration reform, and a dominant player when a comprehensive bill on the issue fell short of passing during president George W. Bush`s second term.
A preliminary, bipartisan effort to frame new comprehensive immigration legislation foundered in the Senate earlier this year.
Obama argued that any reform would have to include effective strengthening of US borders. He said businesses who hire illegal workers should also be held accountable.
And illegal immigrants should also pay a price for jumping the queue.
"They must be required to admit that they broke the law. They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine and learn English," the president said.
"They must get right with the law before they can get in line and earn their citizenship."
BDST: 10:03HRS, July 2, 2010