Obama launches immigration overhaul
30 January 2013, 09:54
Washington - President Barack Obama will try to rally support on Tuesday for an immigration overhaul that would give millions of illegal immigrants a pathway to US citizenship, while tightening border security, building on a similar proposal by a bipartisan group of influential senators and pointing the way to the first significant change to the famously snarled system in about two decades.
The president will launch his plan at a campaign-style event in Las Vegas, addressing an issue that has languished in Washington for years.
Administration officials said Obama would largely endorse the senators' efforts, though immigration advocates said they expected Obama's proposals to be more progressive, including a faster pathway to citizenship.
Obama "will certainly note today the promising signs we've seen in Congress, most specifically the bi-partisan principles put together by the group of senators that mirror his own principles," White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reports 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 actual legislation is produced."
The simultaneous immigration campaigns come in the wake of the November presidential election, where Obama won more than 70% of the Hispanic vote in a defeat of Republican rival Mitt Romney, who famously urged illegal immigrants to "self-deport”.
Republican lawmakers who had previously opposed immigration reform were forced to reconsider it and rebuild the party's reputation among Hispanics, an increasingly powerful political force.
With the turnaround, immigration has surprisingly emerged as the rare issue with at least some kind of bipartisan support in a deeply divided Congress, where gun control and tackling the massive deficit face far bigger fights ahead.
Still, passage of emotionally charged immigration legislation by the Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, and the House of Representatives is dominated by conservative Republicans who have shown little interest in immigration overhaul.
The Republican base opposes anything that might resemble an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
But Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008, said members of his party should realise that supporting immigration legislation could boost Republican prospects in future elections.
"The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realise that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens," McCain said.
With a re-elected Obama pledging his commitment, the bipartisan group of senators on Monday argued that the chances for approval of immigration legislation are much better this year.
"Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals," said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.
"But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down."
Schumer argued that polls show more support than ever for immigration changes and political risk in opposing it.
Most of the recommendations Obama will make on 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.
Administration officials said the president would bolster that 2011 blueprint with fresh details. His original plan centred on four key areas: A pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, improved border security, an overhaul of the legal immigration system and making it easier 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 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.
Pathways to citizens
Obama's previous proposals for creating a pathway to citizenship required those already in the US 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.
The Senate group's pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the US would be contingent upon securing the border and improving tracking of people in the US on visas. Linking citizenship to border security could become a sticking point between the White House and lawmakers.
The Senate framework would also require those here illegally to pass background checks and pay fines and taxes in order to qualify for a "probationary legal status" that would allow them to live and work here - but not qualify for federal benefits - before being able to apply for permanent residency, a critical step toward citizenship.
Once they are allowed to apply they would do so behind everyone else already waiting for a green card within the current immigration system.
Gay and lesbian advocates were also expecting Obama's proposals to include recognition of same-sex couples where one partner is a US citizen and another is not.
McCain called the issue a "red flag" in an interview on Tuesday on CBS, and he said he didn't think the issue was of "paramount importance at this time."
McCain said 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”.