President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to once again prod Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul, a goal that could be within reach this year.
In his speech, Obama laid out a three-part immigration policy plan. He called for tighter border security, a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, and a rewrite of immigration laws to make it easier for high-skilled workers to stay in the country.
“We can build on the progress my administration has already made — putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years,” he said. “Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship — a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
He also called for “fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”
Bipartisan groups in both the House and the Senate are working on legislation that could achieve those objectives, and plan to release draft bills within weeks. The Senate group released a set of principles Jan. 28 that included a path to citizenship.
“I applaud their efforts,” Obama said of the two groups.
Although neither side has produced a bill so far, Republicans — particularly in the House — have raised objections to allowing undocumented people to gain citizenship, a prerequisite for Democrats and immigration advocates. Obama has repeatedly said he is committed to a change that would ultimately grant citizenship, including in the immigration overhaul principles he outlined in a Jan. 29 Las Vegas speech.
Immigration, one of the most controversial policy areas in Washington, re-emerged onto the national consciousness after Latino voters propelled Obama to re-election last year. And although immigration did not feature prominently in his State of the Union speech — Obama devoted only five paragraphs to it — the White House feels strongly enough about the issue to have invited Alan Aleman, an undocumented college student from Nevada, to sit with the first lady on Tuesday night.
Lawmakers evidently also feel strongly about the issue and gave the immigration part of the speech some of the night’s loudest cheers.
Since the election, Republicans have tried to change their message to appeal more to Hispanics and they selected Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to deliver their party’s response in both English and Spanish. Rubio, the child of Cuban immigrants, has become one of the GOP’s preeminent voices on immigration. As a member of the Senate working group, he has endorsed granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, a position that puts him at odds with many of his more conservative colleagues.
“We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally,” Rubio said in the Republican response Tuesday night. “But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.