President Barack Obama on Tuesday told an enthusiastic crowd in Nevada that the country finally seems ready to undertake a comprehensive immigration overhaul, and he made an emotional appeal to get it done quickly.
“The good news is for the first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together,” Obama said, noting a bipartisan framework announced by eight senators Monday.
Obama said lawmakers and the country need to seize the moment.
“We can’t afford to allow immigration reform to be bogged down in an endless debate. ... If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”
The president unveiled his own principles for immigration reform, which generally mirror his earlier efforts. But notably, his proposals do not include the Senate group’s compromise of tying improved border enforcement to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Obama said it must be clear at the outset “that there is a pathway to citizenship” for comprehensive reform to work. He said the path would not be easy — illegal immigrants would have to learn English and go to the back of the line to become citizens, Obama said. “It won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process,” he said.
Obama said his vision also includes tougher penalties on employers who break immigration laws as well as improved checks to make sure workers are legal. And Obama said the legal immigration system needs an overhaul for the 21st century, with a new ability for employers to bring or retain talented immigrants and an end to citizens having to wait years before they can bring their family members to the United States. All of those points were also included in the Senate group’s outline.
The president said the larger debate was an important and emotional one — that there are few things more important to the United States as a society than who is allowed to come and call themselves Americans.
“The question now is simple, 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,” he said.
But he warned that the debate has often become about “us vs. them.”
“A lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them,” Obama said, saying that with the exception of Native Americans, everyone’s ancestors came over as immigrants.
“Remember that this is not just about policy, this is about people. ... This is about men and women ... who want nothing more than to earn their way into this country.”
Obama’s speech brought concern from some Republicans that the White House would push for a package too liberal to garner their support, but Democrats and other allies praised him for pushing a broad package on the stump while giving Congress time to hash out many of the details.
“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,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a written statement.
House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement that lawmakers and the American people “should cautiously study the President’s immigration reform proposal since this Administration has a poor record of enforcing our immigration laws already on the books.”
Goodlatte said there will be a lot of questions about how the plan would work, how much it will cost and how future illegal immigration will be prevented — and he pledged to look at each piece in detail.
Democrats were far more charitable.
“His recommendations for how to tackle one of our Nation’s most pressing problems are thoughtful, realistic, and inclusive,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who scheduled the first hearing on Feb. 13, the day after the State of the Union address. “I am particularly pleased to see that the President’s proposal includes better access to visas for victims of domestic and sexual violence, improved laws for refugees and asylum seekers, an enhanced investor visa program, and the assurance that every family, including binational gay and lesbian spouses, receives equal treatment under the law,” he said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Obama “is handling this perfectly. He is using the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention on the urgency of immigration reform and set goals for action on this issue. But he is also giving lawmakers on both sides the space to form a bipartisan coalition.“