President: ‘Now Is The Time’ To Fix Immigration

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Updated: 4:54 p.m., 1/29/13:

LAS VEGAS — Declaring “now is the time” to fix broken immigration laws, President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged Congress to put millions of illegal immigrants on a clear path to U.S. citizenship while cracking down on businesses that employ people illegally and tightening security at the borders. He heralded a rare show of bipartisanship between the White House and Senate leaders on basic plans to resolve the long, emotional national issue.

But both the White House and Senate proposals for tackling the complex and emotionally charged issue still lack key details. And potential roadblocks are already emerging over how to structure the avenue to citizenship and whether a bill would cover same-sex couples – and that’s all before a Senate measure can be debated, approved and sent to the Republican-controlled House where opposition is likely to be stronger.

Obama, in the heart of the heavily Hispanic Southwest, praised the Senate push, saying Congress is showing “a genuine desire to get this done soon.” But mindful of previous immigrations efforts that have failed, Obama warned that the debate would become more difficult as it gets closer to a conclusion.

“The question now is simple,” Obama said during a campaign-style event in Las Vegas, one week after being sworn in for a second term in the White House. “Do we have the resolve as a people, as a country, as a government to finally put this issue behind us? I believe that we do.”

Despite possible obstacles to come, the broad agreement between the White House and bipartisan lawmakers in the Senate represents a drastic shift in Washington’s willingness to tackle immigration, an issue that has languished for years. Much of that shift is politically motivated, due to the growing influence of Hispanics in presidential and other elections and their overwhelming support for Obama in November.

Still, some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader of Kentucky, responded cautiously to the proposals from the President, on Tuesday, and the Senate group, which put forward its proposals one day earlier.

“Any solution should be a bipartisan one, and we hope the President is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate,” said Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesman.

The separate White House and Senate proposals focus on the same principles: providing a way for most of the estimated 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, strengthening border security, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and streamlining the legal immigration system.

A consensus around the question of citizenship could help lawmakers clear one major hurdle that has blocked previous immigration efforts. Many Republicans have opposed allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens, saying that would be an unfair reward for people who have broken the law.

Details on how to achieve a pathway to citizenship still could prove to be a major sticking point between the White House and the Senate group, which is comprised of eight lawmakers – four Democrats and four Republicans.

Obama and the Senate lawmakers all want to require people here illegally to register with the government, pass criminal and national security background checks, pay fees and penalties as well as back taxes, and wait until existing immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line for green cards. After reaching that status, U.S. law says people can become citizens after five years.

The Senate proposal says that entire process couldn’t start until the borders were fully secure and tracking of people in the United States on visas had improved. Those vague requirements would almost certainly make the timeline for achieving citizenship longer than what the White House is proposing.

The president urged lawmakers to avoid making the citizenship pathway so difficult that it would appear out of reach for many illegal immigrants.

“We all agree that these men and women have to earn their way to citizenship,” he said. “But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must make clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”

“It won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process,” Obama added.

Another key difference between the White House and Senate proposals is the administration’s plan to allow same-sex partners to seek visas under the same rules that govern other family immigration. The Senate principles do not recognize same-sex partners, though Democratic lawmakers have told gay rights groups that they could seek to include that in a final bill.

John McCain of Arizona, who is among the eight in the Senate immigration group, called the issue a “red flag” in an interview Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”

Washington last took up immigration changes in a serious way in 2007, when then-President George W. Bush pressed for an overhaul. The initial efforts had bipartisan support but eventually collapsed in the Senate because of a lack of GOP support.

Cognizant of that failed effort, the White House has readied its own immigration legislation. But officials said Obama will send it to the Hill only if the Senate process stalls.

Most of the recommendations Obama made Tuesday were not new. They were included in the immigration blueprint he released in 2011, but he exerted little political capital to get it passed by Congress, to the disappointment of many Hispanics.

Some of the recommendations in the Senate plan are also pulled from past immigration efforts. The senators involved in formulating the latest proposals, in addition to McCain, are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Also Tuesday, in another sign of Congress’ increased attention to immigration issues, a group of four senators introduced legislation aimed at allowing more high-tech workers into the country, a longtime priority of technology businesses. The bill by Republicans Rubio and Orrin Hatch and Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons would increase the number of visas available for high-tech workers, make it easier for them to change jobs once here and for their spouses to work, and aim to make it easier for foreigners at U.S. universities to remain here upon graduation.

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Immigration Reform

WASHINGTON — Seeking swift action on immigration, President Barack Obama on Tuesday will try to rally public support behind his proposals for giving millions of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, as well as making improvements to the legal immigration system and border security.

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The President will launch his push in a campaign-style event in Las Vegas, a day after a bipartisan group of senators unveiled their own plan for addressing an issue that has languished in Washington for years.

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Administration officials said Obama would largely endorse the senators’ efforts, though immigration advocates said they expected the President’s own proposals to be more progressive than the Senate group’s plan, including a faster pathway to citizenship.

The simultaneous immigration campaigns were spurred by the November presidential election, in which Obama won an overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters. The results caused Republican lawmakers who had previously opposed immigration reform to reconsider in order to rebuild the party’s reputation among Hispanics, an increasingly powerful political force.

Most of the recommendations Obama will make Tuesday are not new. He outlined an immigration blueprint in May 2011 but exerted little political capital to get it passed by Congress, to the disappointment of many Hispanics.

Obama “will certainly note today the promising signs we’ve seen in Congress, most specifically the bipartisan principles put together by the group of senators that mirror his own principles,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Nevada.

“That is cause for hope. And what you’ll hear from the president today is how we need to take these initial positive steps and continue to move forward so that actual legislation is produced.”

The President was to make his pitch in Nevada, a political battleground he carried in November, in large part because of support from Hispanics in the state.

Nationally, Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, giving him a key advantage over Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Administration officials said the President would bolster his 2011 immigration blueprint with some fresh details. His original plan centered on four key areas: a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, improved border security, an overhaul of the legal immigration system, and an easier process for businesses to verify the legal status of workers.

Administration officials said they were encouraged to see the Senate backing the same broad principles. In part because of the fast action on Capitol Hill, Obama does not currently plan to send lawmakers formal immigration legislation.

However, officials said the White House does have legislation drafted and could fall back on it should the Senate process stall. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal strategy.

Carney said the President believes the package also should include recognition of gay couples where one partner is American and another is not.

“The President has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love,” Carney said.

Sen. John McCain called the issue a “red flag” in an interview Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”

The Arizona Republican also said he didn’t think the issue was of “paramount importance at this time.”

“We’ll have to look at it,” McCain said. But he added that the highest priority is finding a “broad consensus” behind the immigration bill already being planned. He said the country must do something about 11 million people “living in the shadows.”

Obama’s previous proposals for creating a pathway to citizenship required those already in the United States illegally to register with the government and submit to security checks; pay registration fees, a series of fines and back taxes; and learn English. After eight years, individuals would be allowed to become legal permanent residents and could eventually become citizens five years later.

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