WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama stepped up his criticism of Arizona's controversial immigration law Wednesday, calling it "misdirected" and warning that it has the potential to be applied in a discriminatory fashion.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, Obama called for overhauling the nation's immigration laws and said that can't be done unless Republicans support it.
The controversy over the Arizona law, which would make it a state crime to be in the country illegally, hung over Calderon's visit. Both leaders oppose the law, with Obama directing the Justice Department to review it for possible civil rights violations, and Calderon's government issuing a travel warning for Arizona, out of concern that Mexicans face an adverse political environment there.
Calderon made good on his pledge to take up the immigration issue during his meetings with Obama. He said the Arizona law criminalized migration and could encourage discrimination. He also called for the U.S. and Mexico to work together to solve the complex, politically sensitive immigration issue.
"We can do so if we create a safer border, a border that will unite us instead of dividing us, uniting our people," Calderon said. "We can do so with a community that will promote a dignified life in an orderly way for both our countries."
Almost twice as many people support the Arizona law as those who oppose it, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this month. It found that 42 percent favored it, 24 percent opposed it and another 29 percent said they were neutral.
Obama has asked the Justice Department to review the law for possible civil rights violations. He said Wednesday that he expects a final review soon, after which his administration will decide how to approach the law.
Obama has promised to start work on an immigration overhaul, but he's also warned that Congress may not have the appetite to take on the sensitive issue this year. He said Wednesday that he can't get the 60 votes he would need in the Senate to pass an immigration bill unless some Republicans step forward. That Republican support could be hard to come by for Obama in an election year.
Obama also reaffirmed his commitment to Calderon's offensive in the deadly drug wars that have affected both sides of the border, saying he admired Calderon's courage in taking on the drug traffickers and cartels that have created a public safety crisis.
"This is not just an issue of the drug trade," Obama said. "This is an issue of how is it affecting people's day-to-day lives in Mexico."
More than 22,700 people have been killed since Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops and federal police across the country in December 2006 in an offensive against drug traffickers.
Obama said the U.S. has an obligation to deal with the demand for drugs in this country that has helped fuel the drug violence, a stance that has won Obama praise from the Mexican government.
The two leaders spoke during a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden following a private meeting. Obama will host Calderon at a state dinner Wednesday night.