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.


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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

"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," he said.

Just a year ago, during a Republican presidential primary season dominated by tough talk on immigration, it seemed implausible that legislation to address the issue could muster support.

But many Republicans have shifted rapidly on the issue since the November election, when Obama won more than 70 percent of votes from Latinos and Asian Americans.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's 2008 opponent, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the two sides could reach a deal.

"While there are some differences in our approaches to this issue, we share the belief that any reform must recognize America as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," said McCain, who spearheaded a failed 2007 immigration overhaul effort before emphasizing tough border positions during his 2010 re-election.

The senators have said they want to draft a bill by the end of March and pass it through the Senate by the summer, striking quickly while there is momentum on the issue.

But aides acknowledge there are dozens of questions they must answer before they can come forward with legislation.

For example, what measurements will be used to determine if border security has been improved sufficiently to allow illegal immigrants to pursue full citizenship? How would a temporary-worker program operate?

Under Obama's plan, illegal immigrants seeking citizenship would register, submit biometric data, pass background checks and pay fees before gaining provisional legal status, according to a White House summary.

After taking those steps and learning English, the immigrants would wait their turn for existing immigration backlogs to clear before being allowed to apply for permanent resident status, which immigrants must hold before they can apply for citizenship.

Children brought to the United States illegally would be eligible for an expedited process if they go to college or serve in the military for at least two years.

The plan would also allow citizens and permanent residents to seek a visa for a same-sex partner -- an idea opposed by many religious groups and one that went unmentioned by Obama in his Tuesday speech.

"It won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process," Obama said Tuesday in Nevada, which is 27 percent Hispanic.

The president, the son of a Kenyan man and an American woman, also sought to remind the audience of immigration's central role in the nation's history.

"When we talk about that in the abstract, it's easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of 'us versus them,' " Obama said. "And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of 'us' used to be 'them.' "


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