Apr 24, 2014 10:33 AM EDT
Immigration Reform Won't Happen Without GOP Support, Obama Tells Latino Celebrities in a Meeting

Comprehensive immigration reform doesn't stand a chance without Republican support, President Obama said in a White House meeting with Latino celebrities on Thursday.

The president said that without the support of Republicans, who now have a majority in the House of Representatives, an overhaul of the immigration system that would include a path to legalization stood little chance of happening, according to those who were at the meeting.

"The White House wants Hispanics to understand that the president cannot just create laws, nor can he just stop deportations by decree," tweeted Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas. To the question about whether there will be immigration reform, she added, the answer was "Not without Republicans."

President Obama met at the White House with Latino celebrities to stress his commitment to immigration reform, according to a White House email about the meeting.

The meeting took place amid mounting frustration among many Latinos - long a crucial voting bloc for Democrats - over what they see as Obama's hollow promises to reform immigration policy.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, actress Eva Longoria said the president stressed his commitment to the DREAM Act, a measure that would help undocumented youth obtain legal status if they meet certain conditions. Most states do not allow undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges where they live at in-state tuition rates, making a higher education cost-prohibitive for many of them.

Last year, the DREAM Act passed in the House, where the Democrats were a majority, but failed in the Senate.

"Obviously we were all disappointed that it didn't pass," said Longoria. "They're wonderful students. It's really undebatable that they should be here and continue their education. We need an educated workforce and these kids would be that."

Among others invited to the meeting were Don Francisco, host of the variety show "Sabado Gigante," actress America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty," and musician/producer Emilio Estefan.

In recent days, Obama also met with immigration and civil rights advocates to drive home a similar message about his commitment to an overhaul of the immigration system that would stress both tighter enforcement as well as a way to help some undocumented immigrants legalize their status.

That meeting did little, however, to quiet criticism by groups on different sides of the immigration issue about federal inaction over the flawed immigration system.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants -- most from Latin America -- live in the United States.

Those who favor a strict immigration policy that would step up enforcement assailed the president for not including conservative activists in the meeting. They argue that the federal government is not doing enough to enforce the laws already on the books regarding illegal immigration.

Latino activists who want more lenient immigration policies, conversely, say they feel betrayed by Obama, who vowed during his presidential campaign that he would reform the immigration system in his first year in office.

The leaders said that the president did not push for reform with anywhere near the same determination and passion that he did for health care reform.

The celebrities who attended the Thursday meeting said the president and some of his advisors who also were there said that Latinos with high profiles could help build up public support for comprehensive immigration reform by helping to promote the important role immigrants play in the United States.

"The message has to get across not only to Latinos but to non-Latinos," Longoria said. "There's fear, people have a fear" of immigrants.

"If they knew that immigrants pay more taxes than Chevron, maybe they would change their views," she said.

Obama often has blamed Republicans - many of whom oppose giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to legalization, seeing it as "amnesty" - for the failure to reform immigration.

But increasingly, many Latinos are seeing Obama as an obstacle to steps that would give some kind of reprieve to undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria. They have been particularly critical of the record number of deportations that have taken place under the Obama administration.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a fellow Democrat and one of the most vocal supporters of immigration reform in Congress, has launched a nationwide campaign to push Obama to tackle immigration.

Gutierrez even stated that he would not support Obama in his re-election bid in 2012 if he did not make a greater effort to stem the deportations which, the congressman claims, divide families and hurt immigrant communities.

The celebrities who attended the Thursday meeting said Latinos could not wait for Congress to become supportive of immigration reform on its own.

"The president needs our help to get the votes in Congress for immigration reform," said Estefan, the music producer. "We are economically and politically important in the United States. We need to keep fighting, we need to have our contributions here recognized."

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino

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