WASHINGTON - Under pressure from advocates and the 2012 re-election calendar, President Barack Obama on Tuesday enlisted a diverse group of elected officials and religious, business, labor, civil rights leaders and law enforcers to help build support for a long-stalled overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
Obama is making a new attempt to fulfill his campaign pledge to enact broad changes early in his term. But his failure there has angered some Hispanics and immigrants' advocates, voters who helped elect him in 2008 and whom he'll need at the polls again next year.
A White House meeting with a group of about 70 people led to no breakthroughs on the way forward, just a call to action.
"The president asked the group to commit to moving forward to keep the debate about this issue alive, to keep it alive in the sense that it can get before Congress, where the ultimate resolution of it will have to be obtained," said Bill Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York City. "The idea being to go out into our various communities and to speak about the issue."
Obama pledged to continue working to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on changes and said he'd lead a "civil debate" on the issue in the months ahead, the White House said in a statement. He also said success won't happen if he alone is leading the debate.
"The president urged meeting participants to take a public and active role to lead a constructive and civil debate on the need to fix the broken immigration system," the White House said. "He stressed that in order to successfully tackle this issue they must bring the debate to communities around the country and involve many sectors of American society in insisting that Congress act to create a system that meets our nation's needs for the 21st century and that upholds America's history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."
The meeting was an attempt by the White House to demonstrate far-reaching support for immigration overhaul and to include voices often not heard in the debate, such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.
Castro told The Associated Press afterward in an interview that Obama pledged to spend as much time on this issue as he spends on the deficit and health care.
The meeting also came ahead of Obama's visit Thursday to Los Angeles to raise money for his re-election campaign. Immigrants and their advocates planned to protest outside the Sony Pictures Studio, where the fundraiser was being held, to remind Obama of his campaign promise and how they say his deportation policies are tearing apart their families.
The government forced a record 393,000 illegal immigrants to leave the country last year.
Others at the meeting said Obama acknowledged that the enforcement and deportations are affecting families, but was clear that he would take no action that could be seen as usurping Congress' role and authority.
Immigrant advocates have been pressing for a number of administrative changes, such as granting hardship waivers to the undocumented parents of American-born children so the adults can continue living in the U.S. with their children.
Obama is feeling pressure from the Latino community, including harsh criticism from the Spanish-language media, and others to fix what he has said on numerous occasions is a broken immigration system.
Hispanics helped elect Obama in 2008. He won 67 percent of the burgeoning Latino vote, more than double the 31 percent garnered by Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain. But Obama's hopes of matching or even topping that performance when he stands for re-election next year could be complicated by failure to deliver on a major promise to an important Democratic constituency.
Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who helped rally Hispanic voters to support Obama during the 2008 campaign, told a Chicago crowd over the weekend that he wasn't sure he could back Obama next year if the president did not step up on immigration. Last week, 22 Senate Democrats also sent Obama a letter asking him to delay deportations of younger illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.
Legislation known as the DREAM Act that would help such immigrants eventually qualify for citizenship failed in the last Congress.
Obama insists that he is committed to overhauling the system. But he also argues that he can't make headway without Republican support. He does not have enough Democratic votes in the Senate to muscle any legislation through and Republicans control the House.
He has called for a broad policy that emphasizes border security, crack downs on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and requiring illegal immigrants to acknowledge that they broke the law, pay back taxes and penalties, and learn English before they can begin the process of qualifying for legal status and eventual citizenship.
Republicans oppose a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, calling it "amnesty."