Updated: 6:52 p.m.
President Barack Obama’s speech on immigration Tuesday may have helped his chances with a key constituency in 2012: business leaders.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups hailed Obama’s attempt to refocus Congress on the issue and tied immigration directly to economic recovery.
That enthusiasm contrasted sharply with the skepticism expressed by Hispanic advocates and Members of Congress, who said it was unlikely that lawmakers could strike a deal anytime soon.
Obama did not provide a timeline or legislative guidelines in his half-hour speech in the border city of El Paso, Texas. As he squinted to read the teleprompter under direct sunlight, the president reiterated the same broad solutions that the administration has long been pushing: prioritizing border security and enforcement of current laws, coupled with guest worker programs and creating a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Of particular interest to business leaders was his call for easing green card restrictions on H-1B visas, which are designed for highly skilled workers. Tech companies have lobbied the administration for action on this issue, and the president quoted Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in Tuesday’s speech as saying, “The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge ... if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete.”
Obama called the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill “an economic imperative.”
“One way to strengthen the middle class is to reform the immigration system so that there’s no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else,” he said. “Immigration reform is not just the right thing to do. It’s smart for our economy.”
It was a well-timed message, business leaders argued, because states have been following Arizona’s example in passing local immigration enforcement laws absent federal action.
“We are against this notion of a piecemeal patchwork of statewide solutions that will hinder economic growth,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million Hispanic-owned businesses.
Palomarez argued that states and the federal government should instead focus on economic opportunities presented by an immigrant workforce.
“With this economy, we need everybody who is willing to work at work. We believe reform will help us with economic recovery,” he said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long supported immigration reform as a way to help American businesses remain competitive, gave the speech an “A” grade.
“We were quite pleased with the ideas he put forth,” said Randy Johnson, the chamber’s senior vice president of labor, immigration and employment benefits. “Now’s the time to get prepared for an economic recovery. This bill isn’t going to rush through Congress, so let’s get off the dime.”
Johnson said the president’s outline for immigration reform largely reflects the business group’s position.
Other business leaders — including entrepreneur and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist and businessman Howard G. Buffett, and AOL co-founder Steve Case — have also backed the president’s call for comprehensive reform.
In contrast, reaction on the Hill to the president’s call for legislation ranged from skepticism to disbelief.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the president should be focused on the debt ceiling and deficit debates under way instead of rehashing immigration.
“I don’t understand how it is the president is out talking about immigration today when we’ve got these issues just weighing on us,” the Virginia Republican said. “We’ve been down that road. I believe in turn we should do things that actually produce progress and results.”
Even House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer politely questioned whether passing a comprehensive bill is plausible.
“It may not be realistic, but I think the president is correct that the issue of immigration must be addressed,” the Maryland Democrat said.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), an outspoken member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who has visited 18 cities in recent weeks to pressure the White House for action on the issue, went a step further and called it “disingenuous” to suggest that the legislative process could be fruitful.
Gutierrez and immigrant rights advocates have said the administration should instead focus on what the White House can do without the help of a divided Congress, such as curb amplified efforts to deport illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) plans to reintroduce the DREAM Act on Wednesday. The bill, which would create a path to citizenship for students and members of the military, was sidelined in a procedural vote in the Senate in December.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum, said the speech is only a start.
“At the end of the day, the president needs to take bold action and change the way he’s enforcing immigration law so that families are kept together,” he said.
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.