President Obama met with faith leaders in the White House to discuss immigration reform. ( Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images))

Obama meets with religious leaders on immigration

WASHINGTON (AP) — Projecting urgency, President Barack Obama said Friday he wants the Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in the next three months, though he is willing to be patient if that timeline slips slightly.

Obama spoke during a meeting with faith leaders, an increasingly powerful part of the coalition seeking to overhaul the nation’s patchwork immigration laws. The private meeting occurred as the White House tries to show it is focused on more than just fiscal issues following Washington’s inability to avert billions in budget cuts and a looming deadline for keeping the government running.

According to people who attended the meeting, the president was enthusiastic about the work underway in the Senate, where a group of eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, are crafting legislation. The White House has drafted its own immigration bill, but Obama emphasized to the faith leaders that he would only send it to Capitol Hill if the Senate effort breaks down.

“The president understood our sense of urgency,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “He understands there’s a very narrow window.”

The “Gang of Eight” senators said this week that they’re not sure they can finish crafting a bill by their self-imposed March deadline but were optimistic about reaching a deal soon.

Immigration shot to the forefront of Washington’s agenda – both for Obama and some Republicans – following the November election. Hispanic voters made up 10 percent of the electorate and Obama carried more than two-thirds of their voters, raising concerns among Republicans about their ability to appeal to the increasingly powerful voting bloc.

Overhauling immigration laws is also a top priority for the fast-growing number of Asians in the U.S., who also voted overwhelmingly for Obama but make up a far smaller percentage of the electorate – 3 percent, according to exit polls from the November election.

Faith leaders, particularly evangelical Christians, have become an important voice in pressing Republicans to back new immigration laws.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference was among those who attended Friday’s meeting with Obama. He said Republicans “must cross the Jordan of immigration reform” in order to regain their standing with Hispanics.

“Otherwise, they will stay in the desert of a political minority party,” he added, using Bible references to illustrate his point.

The faith leaders said they were largely in line with the president on what needs to be included in an immigration bill, particularly the need to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. They also agree with Obama declaring the border secure should not be a precondition for starting the citizenship pathway, as the Senate group has proposed.

However, faith leaders are opposed to the president’s belief that gays and lesbians should be afforded equal rights under a new immigration law. Meeting participants said they raised their concerns during the meeting, but the topic did not dominate the conversation.

Among the 14 participants in the meeting were representatives of the Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Mormon faiths.

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