Image: U.S. President Obama and Mexican President Calderon talk during the official arrival ceremony at the White House in Washington
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
U.S. President Obama and Mexican President Calderon talk during the official arrival ceremony at the White House in Washington on Wednesday.
updated 5/19/2010 7:12:29 PM ET 2010-05-19T23:12:29

Confronting soaring frustration over illegal immigration, President Barack Obama on Wednesday condemned Arizona's crackdown and pushed instead for a federal fix the nation could embrace. He said that will never happen without Republican support, pleading: "I need some help."

In asking anew for an immigration overhaul, Obama showed solidarity with his guest of honor, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who called Arizona's law discriminatory and warned Mexico would reject any effort to "criminalize migration." The United States and Mexico share a significant economic and political relationship that stands to be damaged the more the nations are at odds over immigration, which affects millions of people on both sides of the border.

Obama sought to show that he, too, is fed up with his own government's failure to fix a system widely seen as broken. He said that would require solving border security, employment and citizenship issues all at once — the kind of effort that collapsed in Congress just three years ago.

The president's stand underscored the forces working against him in this election year: the need for help from Republican critics, the impatience of states like Arizona after federal inaction, the pressure to show movement on a campaign promise, and the mood of the public disgusted by porous borders.

Law will take effect July 29
The Arizona law requires police to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally, and it makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally. People may be questioned about their status if they've been stopped by police who are in the process of enforcing another law.

The law will take effect July 29 unless legal challenges are successful. Almost twice as many people support it as those who oppose it, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this month. It found that 42 percent favored it, 24 percent opposed it and another 29 percent said they were neutral.

Yet in a Rose Garden appearance with Calderon, Obama called the Arizona law "a misdirected expression of frustration." He expects to announce soon what action his government may take about it, once the Justice Department finishes reviewing whether the law violates civil rights.

Video: Obama: Ariz. immigration law 'troublesome' "In the United States of America, no law-abiding person — be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor or tourist from Mexico — should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like," Obama said.

Calderon was upbeat about the chance of finding a fair, dignified way of dealing with migrants. He added: "Many of them, despite their significant contribution to the economy and to the society of the United States, still live in the shadows, and occasionally, as in Arizona, they even face discrimination."

The immigration theme dominated a day of pageantry and showy support for Calderon, who enjoyed a state visit with his wife, Margarita Zavala.

State dinner in the East Room
The Mexican president was treated to a grand welcome on the South Lawn in the morning. Wednesday night, 200 guests were invited for a state dinner in the East Room, followed by entertainment back on the lawn under cover of an enormous tent. Obama repeatedly offered U.S. support for Calderon's government, particularly in his aggressive fight against drug traffickers, a violent battle that has left roughly 23,000 people dead since the end of 2006.

On immigration, Obama's criticism of the Arizona law is easier than the fix he wants: getting his own party and Republicans to pass an immigration overhaul.

His plan calls improving border security, ensuring employers are held accountable if they try to hire undocumented workers or break other laws, and assigning a series of responsibilities on the millions of people living in the United States illegally. Those include requiring them to pay a penalty and back taxes, learn English and get in line toward becoming a legal resident and citizen of the country.

Republican President George W. Bush tried to get that the kind of package through Congress in his second term, once confidently telling reporters: "I'll see you at the bill signing." He never did. The effort collapsed on Capitol Hill in 2007, as critics charged that the measure amounted to amnesty for lawbreakers.

This time around, Obama said: "I'm actually confident that we can get it done."

But in a political tutorial on the path ahead, Obama said he didn't have the 60 votes he needs in the Senate to overcome vote-killing stall tactics. Democrats and independents hold 59 Senate seats. Obama said he will seek the Republican support he needs.

"It's my job to work with members of Congress to see that happen," the president said. Again, though, even he has questioned Congress' will this year.

Time is running short
Senate supporters have unveiled a framework as a starting point, but time is running short for any real action in 2010, frustrating in particular the many Hispanic voters who want progress. The outcome of fall elections could determine whether Congress takes up immigration next year.

Calderon will have a chance to make his case directly to U.S. lawmakers on Thursday during an address to Congress.

Meanwhile, Obama and Calderon emerged from their talks heralding expanded cooperation on trade, energy, intellectual property and student exchanges.

Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Calderon's offensive in the deadly drug wars, too.

"This is not just a problem in Mexico," Obama said. "It is a problem that the United States has to address. ... It is absolutely true that U.S. demand for drugs helps to drive this public safety crisis within Mexico and so we've got an obligation not to drive the demand side of the equation."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Obama, Calderon harp on Ariz. immigration law

  1. Transcript of: Obama, Calderon harp on Ariz. immigration law

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: One issue that unleashes a lot of discontent is immigration. It was a big topic at the White House today, along with that new law in Arizona designed to crack down on illegal immigrants. It came up today in two different settings, and both the president and the first lady talked about it. Savannah Guthrie with us on the White House lawn tonight with more on this. Savannah, good evening.

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: Good evening, Brian . While the White House is hosting Mexico for its first state visit , Mexico here during the Obama administration. There's even a state dinner tonight. But as you said, this issue of immigration very quickly become front and center. The Obamas welcomed the president and first lady of Mexico with all the pomp and pageantry expected of a state visit . But Mexican President Felipe Calderon did not stand on ceremony, at first opportunity castigating Arizona 's new law on immigration as discriminatory.

    President FELIPE CALDERON:

    GUTHRIE: At an afternoon news conference, the president came close to agreeing.

    President BARACK OBAMA: In the United States of America , no law-abiding person, be they an American citizen , a legal immigrant or a visitor or tourist from Mexico , should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like.

    GUTHRIE: Today, even as the two presidents were meeting in the Oval Office , the wives of both leaders were drawn into the debate. At an event that was supposed to promote exercise at a Washington - area school , Mrs. Obama took this question from a second grade girl.

    Unidentified Student: My mom said that I think that she -- she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn't have papers.

    Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Yeah, well, that's something that we have to work on, right, to make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That's exactly right.

    Student: But my mom doesn't have paper.

    Ms. OBAMA: Yeah. Well, we have to work on that.

    GUTHRIE: Promising once again he will tackle the issue this year, today the president put the burden on Republicans .

    Pres. OBAMA: I don't have 60 votes in the Senate . I've got to have some support from Republicans .

    GUTHRIE: Well, the president of Mexico is going to get his chance to address lawmakers. He'll speak to Congress tomorrow. As for that little girl at the school, the school's principal told us she does not know the mother's legal status and does not ask that. They point to -- school officials do -- this 1982 Supreme Court decision that makes it illegal for a school to deny free public education to a student based on immigration status. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Savannah Guthrie at the White House tonight. Savannah, thanks.

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