WASHINGTON – Facing off over illegal immigration, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer told President Barack Obama that Americans "want our border secured" and called Thursday for completion of a separating fence. Obama underscored his objections that the tough immigration law she signed is discriminatory.
Meeting in the Oval Office, Obama said Arizona's law and similar efforts by more than 20 states would interfere with the federal government's responsibility to set and enforce immigration policy.
Neither side appeared to give ground on the contentious issue although both talked about seeking a bipartisan solution.
Obama urged her to "be his partner" in working toward a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's badly fractured immigration system. Brewer told The Associated Press afterward that she told Obama her state is not ready for the comprehensive solution he favors.
"I said we need to have the fence completed, have more troops on the border and more resources" for aerial surveillance, she said.
Thursday's unusual meeting between the president and the governor was a byproduct of Brewer's decision to sign a first-in-the-nation law requiring police enforcing other laws to check immigration status if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. The law also makes being in the U.S. illegally a state crime. Brewer sought the meeting and the White House accepted.
Emerging from the half-hour session, Brewer said Obama had assured her that the majority of the 1,200 National Guard troops he is sending to the U.S.-Mexico border would be going to her state.
Brewer said she and Obama, at odds over how to control illegal immigration, also agreed to try to work together on solutions. She said White House staff would visit Arizona in a couple of weeks to continue the "very cordial discussion" she had with the president.
"I believe the people of Arizona, the people of America, want our border secured," Brewer said.
Outside the White House, hundreds of protesters, as unhappy with the law as they are with Obama's inability to overhaul a system he and others say is broken, noisily greeted the Republican governor as she arrived for the meeting.
Nearly 200 people walked in a circle on the pedestrian-only portion of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House — holding signs, chanting "Jan Brewer, shame on you!" beating drums and, in the case of one man, strumming a guitar.
The Arizona law is scheduled to take effect July 29, unless it is blocked by a court under pending legal challenges. Obama's Justice Department also is reviewing the law for possible civil rights violations, with an eye toward a possible court challenge. Obama would not discuss any possible Justice Department action in the meeting, Brewer said.
Brewer has said she signed the law because she believes Washington had failed to do its part to protect the U.S.-Mexico border.
Obama said Thursday in an interview that he understands the frustration in Arizona over the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico but that Arizona's law is the wrong way to go about solving the problem.
"I think this puts American citizens, who ... are Hispanic, potentially in an unfair situation," he told CNN's Larry King.
Obama has been more outspoken on the issue recently. He has restated his desire to fix the system in a way that would tighten access to the border, help millions of illegal immigrants become U.S. citizens and crack down on employers who knowingly hire them. But he also has reminded advocates that Democrats only have 59 votes in the Senate — one short of the number needed to overcome GOP stalling tactics.
Some Republicans, including Brewer and Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, want tighter border controls first.
Obama has met with Republican senators and telephoned some privately, but Democrats have been unable to get any Republicans to help write an immigration reform bill. Some Democrats also oppose taking up immigration reform this election year, and the legislative calendar is closing.
While lawmakers and border-state governors say more federal troops are needed to fight rising violence in their states, government data obtained by The Associated Press show it actually isn't so dangerous down there after all.
The top four big U.S. cities with the lowest violent crime rates — San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin — are in border states, according to a new FBI report. And an internal Customs and Border Protection report shows its agents face far less danger than street cops in most U.S. cities.
Brewer said in a televised interview last weekend: "We are out here on the battlefield getting the impact of all this illegal immigration, and all the crime that comes with it." But FBI crime reports for 2009 says violent crime in Arizona declined. And violent crimes in Southwest border counties are among the lowest in the nation per capita — they've dropped by more than 30 percent in the last two decades.
Brewer said after Thursday's meeting that she believes people across the country "want our border secured" and that she would like to see construction begin soon to complete a fence along the border.
The Obama-Brewer meeting was closed to the media, so reporters did not see them together. The White House later released an official photograph from the meeting.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Martha Mendoza in Mexico City contributed to this report.