Image: President Barack Obama
Reed Saxon  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday.
updated 3/18/2009 9:51:52 PM ET 2009-03-19T01:51:52

President Barack Obama said Wednesday he still supports "comprehensive immigration reform," even though he rarely mentions it anymore. Asked about the emotional and politically delicate topic at a town hall format in Southern California, the president said the nation must find a way to strengthen its borders while also giving about 12 million illegal immigrants a path to possible citizenship.

"If they stay in the shadows," he said, some employers will exploit them, hurting wages and work conditions for all American workers.

Obama said illegal residents who have been in the United States a long time and have put down roots should have a mechanism for achieving legal status. They would have to learn English, pay a significant fine and "go to the back of the line" of those applying for legal entry, he said.

Immigration reform not being pushed
Obama has not listed immigration reform among the ambitious programs he is pushing this year. His remarks came at a meeting with about 1,300 people in this Los Angeles suburb.

Former President George W. Bush backed a similar immigration program, but it died in Congress amid heavy criticisms, especially from those saying too many illegal immigrants have been allowed to enter the country.

Obama visited the area Wednesday to promote his $787 billion economic stimulus and to tape an appearance Thursday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

At the town hall meeting, Obama portrayed himself as an elected official helping average Americans battle entrenched interests from Washington and Wall Street regardless of the political cost.

When a woman at a California event asked if he plans to seek re-election in 2012, Obama replied: "If I could get done what I think needs to get done in four years, even if it meant that I was only president for four years, I would rather be a good president to take on the tough issues for four years than a mediocre president for eight years."

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