Washington: US President Barack Obama will move cautiously into the debate over US immigration reform on Tuesday, seeking to build momentum for a new bipartisan plan to offer a pathway to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
Reflecting the growing clout of Hispanic voters, Obama is travelling to Nevada little more than a week after his second inauguration to make the case for swift action by Congress to overhaul immigration laws.
The trip comes a day after a group of influential senate Democrats and Republicans laid out a broad plan of their own.
Obama said the plan shows “a genuine desire to get this done” and is “very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years,” according to excerpts from his prepared remarks provided by the White House.
“The good news is that—for the first time in many years—Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together,” he will say.
Immigration reform could give Obama a landmark second-term legislative achievement but he must be cautious in his approach. His challenge is to help build public support for the senators’ framework while not alienating his fiercest Republican opponents, who may resist anything with the Democratic president’s name on it.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on board Air Force One during the flight to Nevada that the senators’ proposals were a “cause for hope.”
“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,” he said.
Scheduled to speak at a Las Vegas high school at 11:55 a.m. PST (1955 GMT), Obama does not intend to unveil legislation of his own. He will instead urge lawmakers to press ahead with their efforts even as he restates the “blueprint” for reform he rolled out in 2011, which called for an “earned” path to citizenship, administration officials said. He will offer a few additional details, one official said.
The flurry of activity marks the first substantive drive in years to forge an agreement on fixing America’s flawed immigration system. Although the debate is likely to be contentious, there is a growing consensus in Washington that the conditions are finally ripe for tackling the problem.
Obama and his fellow Democrats see their commitment to immigration reform as a way to solidify their hold on the Latino vote, which they won handily in the 2012 election. Nevada, for example, has a fast-growing Hispanic population that helped Obama carry the state in the November election.
Many Republicans, worried that their party has alienated Hispanics with anti-immigrant rhetoric, are suddenly open to cooperation on the issue as they seek to set a new tone.
“When the president addresses this issue Tuesday, I hope he will take a bipartisan approach rather than delivering another divisive partisan speech,” senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on Monday.
The eight-member senate group includes John McCain, a Republican from the border state of Arizona; Charles Schumer, a centrist Democrat from New York; and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American favorite of the Tea Party movement who has helped garner support from influential conservatives.
In an attempt to build support, the senate proposal would couple immigration reform with enhanced border security efforts aimed at preventing illegal immigration and ensuring that those foreigners temporarily in the US return home when their visas expire.
Under the proposal, undocumented immigrants would be allowed to register with the government, pay a fine, and then be given probationary legal status allowing them to work.
Ultimately, these immigrants would have to “go to the end of the line” and apply for permanent status. But while waiting to qualify for citizenship, they would no longer face the fear of deportation or harassment from law enforcement if they have steered clear of illegal activity.
Obama’s aides consider it a breakthrough that Republican members of the bipartisan group of senators have agreed to a path to citizenship, a concept that many in their party have long opposed as tantamount to amnesty for law breakers.
The White House remains wary, however. The president’s aides have written up extensive legislative language for an immigration overhaul and will step in with their own formal proposals if the senate effort falls apart, an administration official said. There was also concern the senators’ plan called for a more drawn-out route to citizenship than Obama would prefer.
One issue that could be a sticking point between the two sides: Obama’s desire for the reform to cover gay and lesbians in same-sex relationships.
“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 on Tuesday.
Immigration reform, sidelined by economic issues and healthcare reform during Obama’s first term, is part of an ambitious liberal agenda he laid out in his second inaugural address. That agenda also includes gun control, gay rights and fighting climate change.
While Obama is likely to use the bully pulpit of the presidency, he likely will be more circumspect about how personally involved he becomes in congressional negotiations on immigration.
“The minute it becomes Obama’s plan, the Republicans kick automatically into opposition,” said Bill Schneider, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia. “The White House knows to back off for now.” Reuters