As a candidate, President Obama intended to get the ball rolling on comprehensive immigration reform in his first year. The global economic crash led to a fairly dramatic shift in his to-do list, but the White House hasn’t forgotten about the issue, and as of this week, hasn’t given up on it, either.

The president traveled to El Paso, Texas, yesterday, and sketched out his administration’s vision on how to reform the ineffective status quo, and why this matters. Much of the focus was on how the existing system affects the economy and the boost that would come from reform. Twice Obama said immigration reform is “smart for our economy.”

“[B]ecause undocumented immigrants live in the shadows, where they’re vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses that skirt taxes, and pay workers less than the minimum wage, or cut corners with health and safety laws, this puts companies who follow the rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime or just a safe place to work, it puts those businesses at a disadvantage. […]

“So one way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else. I want incomes for middle-class families to rise again. I want prosperity in this country to be widely shared. I want everybody to be able to reach that American dream. And that’s why immigration reform is an economic imperative. […]

“And reform will also help to make America more competitive in the global economy. Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States. Instead of training entrepreneurs to stay here, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can attract, all the talent we can get to stay here to start businesses — not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contribution will benefit all Americans.”

He added that “businesses all across America are demanding that Washington finally meet its responsibilities to solve the immigration problem.” That’s true — shortly after the speech, Roll Call reported that 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.”

Under the circumstances, I suppose that again positions Republicans as the “anti-business” party?

Speaking of the GOP, President Obama threw a few partisan elbows yesterday, noting that they refuse to take “yes” for an answer. Republicans demanded strengthened border security, and the Obama administration did that. The administration has also tripled the number of intelligence analysts working at the border and deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol.

“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” the president explained. “All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time. You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied.”

He added, “The question is whether those in Congress who previously walked away in the name of enforcement are now ready to come back to the table and finish the work we’ve started.”

The answer to that question is almost certainly, “No.” The likelihood of GOP officials even considering this issue is about zero, no matter the economic benefits or the support from the business community.

So why would Obama bother? To be sure, some of this has to do with electoral considerations and the 2012 race, but this is also about shifting the larger conversation. If policymakers are going to take economic growth seriously, and do whatever it takes to give the nation a boost, immigration reform should obviously be part of the mix. If the political will doesn’t exist to pursue reform, it’s up to the president to start changing the politics and creating some pressure.]

To that end, yesterday was a worthwhile first step.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.