Obama clamors for federal fix to immigration woes

President Barack Obama puts his arm around Mexican President Felipe Calderon after an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 19, 2010. / AP Photo

WASHINGTON (AP) " 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Read earlier story below.

WASHINGTON (AP) " In a showy display of solidarity, President Barack Obama welcomed Mexican President Felipe Calderon to the White House on Wednesday and pledged cooperation on immigration, a violent drug war and economic struggles on both sides of the border.

"I say to you and to the Mexican people: Let us stand together," Obama said in a South Lawn ceremony heralding the start of Calderon's state visit.

Sprinkling in a bit of Spanish, Obama went to great lengths to greet Calderon, who is fighting an escalating, bloody battle against drug cartels in his country and facing pressure to get results on immigration reform. Around the White House grounds, Mexican and U.S. flags flew together, while cheering school children and military in their finest dress uniforms gathered on the South Lawn to embrace the pageantry.

Hanging over the state visit is Arizona's controversial immigration law, which makes it a crime under state law to be in the U.S. illegally. Both Obama and Calderon have strongly opposed the law.

Calderon took on the law directly again Wednesday, saying it opened up the Mexican people to discrimination. He called for the U.S. and Mexico to work together to address the solve the complex, politically sensitive immigration issue.

"We can do so if we create a safer border, a border that will unite us instead of dividing us, uniting our people," Calderon said. "We can do so with a community that will promote a dignified life in an orderly way for both our countries."

A senior administration official said Obama will reiterate his commitment to fixing the nation's immigration system during his private meetings with Calderon. The official also said the administration plans to address security along the U.S.-Mexico border and build on work done this year to open new border crossings and invest in the modernization of existing crossings. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely ahead of the meetings.

The two leaders will hold a joint news conference later in the day and an elaborate state dinner Wednesday night.

Obama and Calderon have met nearly a dozen times since Obama took office, including a meeting in April 2009 in Mexico City and a North American leaders' summit in Guadalajara in August. First lady Michelle Obama also has formed a friendship with Mexico's first lady, Margarita Zavala, who visited the White House in February. Mrs. Obama visited Zavala in Mexico City last month on her first solo trip abroad as first lady.

Obama and Calderon are also expected to discuss drug violence that has affected both sides of the border. More than 22,700 people have been killed since Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops and federal police across the country in December 2006 in an offensive against drug traffickers.

The U.S. has been a strong supporter of the offensive, providing training and equipment under the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative. The Obama administration has earned praise from Mexico for repeatedly acknowledging that U.S. drug consumption is a large part of the problem.

Other issues expected to be on the agenda include:

" Climate change. Calderon has worked to make Mexico a global leader on the issue. His country hosts the next round of international climate negotiations in December in Cancun.

" The economy. The White House expects both sides to come away from Wednesday's meetings with a number of concrete announcements about the ways in which both governments can work together to enhance economic competitiveness.

" Cross-boarder trucking. Calderon is likely to raise the issue of Mexican trucks being denied access to the United States as a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The administration official said Obama will reaffirm his commitment to working with Calderon and Congress to address the concerns.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.