January 30, 2013

In Focus: Obama stumps to build consensus for immigration overhaul

Hinting at impatience, the president says he'll submit his own plan if lawmakers can't come up with one.


U.S. President Barack Obama arrives on stage to deliver remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas
click image to enlarge

President Obama talks about immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday.


Members of SEIU United Service Workers West chant before a public viewing of President Obama's speech on immigration in Los Angeles
click image to enlarge

Members of Service Employees International Union chant before President Obama’s speech on immigration in Los Angeles on Tuesday.



WASHINGTON - Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took his case for an overhaul of the nation's immigration system straight to one of the most influential voices in Republican politics, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Their friendly exchange notwithstanding, Limbaugh remained opposed. And their exchange underscored a key facet of the coming debate over whether to allow a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now inside the U.S.: Republicans are split on the immigration issue and the schism is not going to be easily healed.

Party leaders are well aware they've got to erase what former Secretary of State Colin Powell termed the "dark veil of intolerance" that colors the party's image in some circles and broaden their appeal to Latinos, a crucial and growing voting bloc that went overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in November.

Republicans are split into two camps. There are those such as Rubio who will consider a path to citizenship along with tighter border security. They're willing to talk to Democrats over how to deal with illegal immigrants and have strong business community support as well as a willingness by key senators to listen.

Then there's the hard line, championed by Limbaugh and others, who insist on tougher border enforcement and suggest "paths to citizenship" are a euphemism for amnesty.

"The word compromise is thrown around, we have to compromise, seek common ground. Where is the common ground (with President Barack Obama)? I don't see it," Limbaugh told his large radio audience Tuesday.

Rubio, a guest on the show, had a delicate political line to toe. He answered carefully and appeared to please Limbaugh. Obama, Rubio said, "can either decide that he wants to be part of a solution, or he can decide he wants to be part of a political issue and try to trigger a bidding war. I'm not going to be part of a bidding war to see who can come up with the most lenient path forward."

But he is looking for a path forward, in a party that is deeply divided on the issue. Officeholders like Rubio in swing states are caught in the middle.

— McClatchy Newspapers

LAS VEGAS - President Obama on Tuesday put the weight of his administration behind efforts to pass legislation allowing many of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, seeking to build on a rapidly shifting political consensus around the issue.

Obama dedicated the first trip of his second term to calling for an overhaul of immigration laws, making clear that it is one of his top domestic priorities. The president -- who has said that not passing an overhaul in his first term was his biggest failure -- also suggested he has little patience for Congress and would demand that lawmakers vote on his more permissive plan if they do not swiftly pass their own.

"Now is the time," Obama said, eliciting chants of "Si, se puede" -- roughly translated as "Yes, it's possible" -- from the crowd at a majority Hispanic high school here. "We can't allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate."

Fresh off a decisive re-election, Obama is seizing this moment as one in which both sides could come together to address widespread anxieties within rising demographic groups, particularly Hispanics and Asian Americans.

But obstacles still loomed large Tuesday on Capitol Hill, fueled by continued unease among conservative Republicans over going too far to loosen immigration restrictions. One of the biggest disputes centers on whether illegal immigrants would have to wait to seek a green card -- the first step to full citizenship -- until the U.S. border with Mexico is secure and other enforcement measures are in place.

A bipartisan Senate plan released Monday would tie the possibility of citizenship to several such enforcement measures, including a system to verify the immigration status of employees. The president did not comment explicitly on that proposal in his speech, but the administration suggested in its own guidelines released Tuesday that it does not want to link the citizenship process to other goals.

"It must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship," Obama said, adding that the administration has made great strides in an effort to toughen enforcement.

Some key Republicans expressed concern with any approach that does not link border security with the proposal to offer illegal immigrants a way to become citizens.

"Without such triggers in place, enforcement systems will never be implemented and we will be back in just a few years dealing with millions of new undocumented people in our country," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 presidential candidate and one of eight senators who signed on to the bipartisan framework.

Another set of pitfalls awaits in the House, where many Republicans are deeply skeptical of any legislation that they believe might be overly generous to illegal immigrants.

"There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "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."

The White House had considered releasing its own legislation to overhaul the immigration system, but Obama said he would not immediately do so.

The president and his aides have long worried that by simply endorsing a position, Obama could turn Republicans against a proposal they otherwise might support.

Obama said the Senate framework is "very much in line with the principles I've proposed and campaigned on for the last few years." But -- in keeping with the more muscular approach he has taken in other recent debates -- Obama also made clear he would not wait long.

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