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How serious is Obama about immigration reform?

President Barack Obama waves as he speaks about immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday, May 10, 2011, during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

In a sweeping speech in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday, President Obama rallied voters to unite in support of comprehensive immigration reform - a longstanding campaign promise on which he has yet to deliver. But despite the president's lofty rhetoric, a number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle wonder how serious Mr. Obama is about affecting tangible action on the matter.

Mr. Obama touted major increases in security along the U.S.-Mexico border in the speech, and argued that in light of the improved safety measures, Republicans had no further grounds with which to block immigration reform - a measure he described as an "economic imperative" in America.

"We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement," Mr. Obama said. "But even though we've answered these concerns, I gotta say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time."

"Maybe they'll need a moat," he quipped. "Maybe they'll want alligators in the moat."

Instead of outlining a legislative strategy on issue, however, Mr. Obama urged voters to "add your voices" to the cause, to let Washington know that "there is a movement for reform gathering strength from coast to coast."

"That's how we'll get this done," Mr. Obama said.

Immigration rights activists largely approved of the sentiment behind the gesture, but many argue that more action must be taken - and that the president could, if he wanted to, provide serious relief for some undocumented immigrants without the help of Congress.

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In a statement on Tuesday, the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) called on the president to use his administrative powers to defer action in deporting promising young students.

"Only Congress can pass the DREAM Act, of course, but there is something the President can and should do now to end the humanitarian crisis that congressional inaction has created," the statement read. "We urge President Obama to exercise his executive authority and act now to direct the Department of Homeland Security to implement such a deferred-action policy. This is a matter of humanitarian necessity, and it would represent the kind of national leadership is needed to move the one-sided, enforcement-first debate about immigration that has so far poisoned prospects for what is ultimately needed - comprehensive reform - in a more fruitful direction."

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) echoed those sentiments.

"I'm happy the president gave the speech today," he said. But he also argued that the president should be using executive powers.

"If the president's move today was to show immigrant voters, Latino voters, that there is no welcome mat out for our community, then he accomplished his feat," Gutierrez said, of Mr. Obama's El Paso speech. "But I think more important... is the following: the president has broad discretionary powers... Why doesn't the president use his discretionary powers so that we can bring some relief, and some fairness and justice in terms of our application of our laws?"

"The president is clearly committed to immigration reform," added Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), in a Tuesday interview with MSNBC. "The problem is that what the administration has done has been all on the enforcement side and has used none of its discretionary powers, administrative powers, to provide some relief to immigrants in this country."

Indeed, the Obama administration has an aggressive record when it comes to deportation: In the 2010 fiscal year, 392,862 undocumented immigrants were deported from the United States. In contrast, during the 2008 fiscal year, during the George W. Bush presidency, 369,221 people were deported.

"We all understand the importance of the legislative process and that we need a bipartisan bill in the long run, but that will take a long time and given the gridlock in Washington, has an uncertain payoff," Gutierrez said Monday. "Immigrant communities need help now, our system is broken now, and the president can do something about it now."

Meanwhile, a number of Republicans have expressed skepticism as to the nature of the president's recent push. And Mr. Obama's decision to deliver the speech in Texas, a politically crucial state in which he hopes to make a "serious play" in the 2012 election, did not escape notice either.  

"I'm afraid this is probably more political theater than reality," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of few Republicans actively pursuing reform.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner noted that "Frankly, we've had no indication from the White House that immigration reform is a priority for them."

"The president's off talking about comprehensive reform. We've been down that road before," Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters on Tuesday. "I believe, in turn, we should do things that actually produce some progress and results."

Senate Democrats have vowed to do just that: On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Menendez said they would re-introduce the DREAM Act into the Senate. The measure, which would provide a path to citizenship to young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and pursue college educations and/or military careers, was not able to overcome a Republican-led GOP filibuster late last year.

Activists have applauded the move, although the measure stands little chance of passage in the House of Representatives.

"It has been reported that a son of Mexican immigrants who was born in the U.S. was among the American heroes in the Navy SEALs squadron that brought Osama Bin Laden to justice," said SEIU International Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, in a statement on Wednesday. "The report reminded us of the dreams of millions of youths in our country who want to serve the country that is their home but cannot advance because they were brought into this country without proper documents."

"The DREAM Act would let these children apply for legal status after meeting a two-year college requirement or serving in the U.S. military," Medina added. "It is an investment in our nation's future and our economic and national security.

"We urge Republicans in Congress to put aside their partisan agenda, recognize the plight of these young Americans and take the moral path for our country and for our economy," urged AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in a statement. "We strongly support the swift passage of the DREAM Act and call on all elected leaders to protect the interests of our nation's youth and working people."

In remarks on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Reid said he thought there was hope for recruiting Republicans to support the measure.

"I believe there are people of good will on the Republican side of the aisle, especially some in the past who have been advocates of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform who will join with us," he said. "This is not a contest between people who are Democrats and Republicans."