January 29, 2013
by Matt Spetalnick
Just over a week into his second term, President Barack Obama took his fight for immigration
reform to the West on Tuesday and pushed Congress to quickly find a path to
citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents.
But as Obama praised a bipartisan immigration plan during a speech in Las
Vegas, disagreement emerged between the White House and Republicans that
underscored the difficulty of resolving an emotive issue that has long defied a
"I'm here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive
immigration reform," Obama said at a high school. "The time is now. Now is the
After years on the back burner, immigration reform has suddenly looked
possible as Republicans, chastened by Latino voters who rejected them in the
November election, appear more willing to accept a thorough overhaul.
Action on immigration was sidelined by economic issues and healthcare reform
during Obama's first term but it is part of an ambitious liberal agenda the
Democratic president laid out last week in his second inaugural address. That
agenda also includes gun control, gay rights and fighting climate
Hispanic voters were crucial in winning Nevada for Obama in November and the
crowd at the high school was supportive.
"Si se puede," yelled some, using a Spanish phrase that harked back to
Obama's 2008 "Yes we can" campaign slogan. Some in the audience were brought to
tears when he talked about the difficulties some immigrants have
In Washington, however, differences quickly emerged between what Obama would
like and the proposals by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators, whose plan is
heavy on border security.
Obama pushed for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that is
faster than the one the Senate group proposed.
Rather than emphasize border security first, he would let undocumented
immigrants get on a path to citizenship if they first undergo national security
and criminal background checks, pay penalties, learn English and get behind
those foreigners seeking to immigrate legally.
"We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to
citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear
from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship," he said.
For Republicans, this is a sticking point. The Gang of Eight plan envisions
first taking steps to toughen security along the U.S.-Mexican border before
setting in motion the steps illegal immigrants must take to gain legal
That difference was enough to raise concerns among Republican lawmakers who
are trying to frame a package that can pass the Republican-led House of
A Hispanic Republican, Senator Marco Rubio, complained that Obama's speech
neglected border security and left the impression that "he believes reforming
immigration quickly is more important than reforming immigration
"I am concerned by the president's unwillingness to accept significant
enforcement triggers before current undocumented immigrants can apply for a
green card," he said. "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."
Republicans will likely oppose any immigration plan that doesn't put border
"This provision is key to ensuring that border security is achieved, and is
also necessary to ensure that a reform package can actually move through
Congress," said newly elected Senator Jeff Flake of the border state of
In addition, Obama made no mention of creating a temporary guest worker
program geared to the low-skilled, labor-intensive agricultural industry. Labor
unions do not yet support such a program.
Another point of contention is expected to be whether same-sex couples are
granted the same benefits as heterosexual couples under immigration reform -
something the White House says Obama will insist upon but which the Senate group
did not deal with.
Obama's speech in Nevada, coming a little more than a week after his second
inauguration, reflects the growing clout of Hispanic voters, as does Republican
willingness to move on the issue.
The president said that if Congress is unable to act in a timely fashion, he
will propose immigration legislation of his own and "insist that they vote on it
Immigration reform could give Obama a landmark second-term legislative
achievement, but the White House is mindful that success on such a divisive
issue will require a delicate balancing act.
The last major attempt at an immigration overhaul was done by Republican
President George W. Bush in 2007. It collapsed in Congress. Obama did not follow
through with a promise to seek an overhaul in his first term, fearing a repeat
of the earlier debacle.
"We can't allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate.
We've been debating this a very long time. So it's not as if we don't know
technically what needs to get done," Obama said.
Republicans who saw their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, receive only 27
percent of the Hispanic vote in the election loss to Obama are adamant that
steps must be taken to draw more Hispanics to their party's ranks.
This could be a slow process to change hearts and minds.
"I don't know about voting for them (the Republicans) yet but they definitely
are starting to talk about things we want to hear," said Maxima Guerrero, 22, a
community college student in Phoenix. Originally from Morelos, Mexico, she was
brought to the United States at age five.
In addition to dealing with Republican demands, Obama needs to watch his left
flank, where unions worry about temporary workers' programs.
And the American Civil Liberties Union warned against an erosion of rights
under plans to tighten the employment verification system that determines
whether a worker is in the United States legally.
"While there are components of the Senate plan that provide millions of
aspiring citizens the legal status they deserve to live, work, and raise their
families free of fear, others, such as mandating E-Verify and continued wasteful
and unnecessary spending on the border, raise serious civil liberties concerns,"
said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director.