Washington — President Barack Obama and former President George W Bush are leaping into the immigration debate, but their attempts to add momentum to the search for a possible path to citizenship for millions face strong opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Bush delivered a rare political speech on Wednesday in favour of immigration reform and Obama prepared for a bipartisan meeting on Thursday with prominent senators at the White House, Republicans who control the House bluntly challenged Obama and appeared unimpressed by Bush's advice to carry a "benevolent spirit" into the debate.
Emerging from a closed-door meeting, Republican leaders affirmed a step-by-step approach to immigration but offered neither specifics nor a timetable — nor any mention of possible citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the US unlawfully.
Lawmakers streaming out of the two-hour meeting said Bush's long-distance advice had not come up in a discussion that focused instead on the importance of securing the US borders and a general distrust of Obama.
The meeting in the Capitol was the House Republicans' first such gathering since the Senate approved sweeping legislation last month on a bipartisan vote of 68-32. Obama is to meet on Thursday with two authors of the Senate measure, Republican John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer, in the president's Oval Office.
The legislation faces a steep challenge in the House, and the former president's ability to sway a new generation of conservatives was a matter of considerable doubt, especially because many of the conservative tea party movement-backed lawmakers have risen to power since he left the White House and are strongly on record in opposition to any citizenship provision.
Need to broaden appeal
"We care what people back home say, not what some former president says," declared Representative Tim Huelskamp, a second-term Republican who has clashed with the party leadership in the House.
Still, the timing and substance of Bush's remarks were reminders of the imperative that many national party leaders feel that Republicans must broaden their appeal among Hispanic voters to compete successfully in future presidential elections. Obama took more than 70% of their votes in winning a second term last year.
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said at a naturalisation ceremony at his presidential library in Dallas.
For their part, Democrats quickly embraced the former president's message, challenging House Speaker John Boehner to proceed in the same spirit.
In a written statement noting that the White House recently delayed a key part of Obama's health care reform law, Boehner and other leaders said that action raised concerns that the administration "cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate".
Lawmakers said after the session there was strong support for a bill to create a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the country as children illegally by family members, an idea advanced by Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Republican Representative Robert Goodlatte, chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel would soon begin work on legislation covering that group.
Several members of the rank and file said Republican Paul Ryan had made a particularly strong appeal for a comprehensive approach, which includes possible citizenship for the 11 million.
But others emphasised there was virtually no support for the Senate's approach of one sweeping measure that dealt with immigration in all its forms.