LAS VEGAS – Declaring that now is the time to fix the nation’s broken immigration system, President Obama on Tuesday outlined broad proposals for putting millions of illegal immigrants on a clear path to citizenship while cracking down on businesses that employ people illegally and tightening security at the borders. He hailed a bipartisan Senate group on a similar track but left unresolved key details that could derail the complex and emotional effort.
Potential Senate roadblocks center on how to structure the avenue to citizenship and on whether legislation would cover same-sex couples – and that’s all before a Senate measure could be debated, approved and sent to the Republican-controlled House, where opposition is sure to be stronger.
Obama, who carried Nevada in the November election with heavy Hispanic support, 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, he warned that the debate would be difficult and vowed to send his own legislation to Capitol Hill if lawmakers don’t act quickly.
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.
Shortly after Obama finished speaking, cracks emerged between the White House and the group of eight senators, which put out their proposals one day ahead of the president. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of four Republicans in the group, criticized Obama for not making a citizenship pathway contingent on tighter border security, a central tenet of the lawmakers’ proposals.
This provision is key to ensuring that border security is achieved and is also necessary to ensure that a reform package can actually move through Congress, Flake said in a statement.
House Speaker John Boehner also responded coolly, with spokesman Brendan Buck saying the Ohio Republican hoped the president would be careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate.
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.
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.
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 then to get it passed by Congress, to the disappointment of many Hispanics.