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Obama: 'Now Is the Time' to Fix Immigration Laws

Reuters with AP
Tuesday, 29 Jan 2013 | 3:48 PM ET
President Barack Obama addresses immigration reform on Jan. 29. 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Source: Whitehouse.gov
President Barack Obama addresses immigration reform on Jan. 29. 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Declaring "now is the time" to fix a broken system, President Barack Obama called on Congress on Tuesday to make good on plans to overhaul immigration laws and offer a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. He said that if Congress is unable to act in a timely fashion, he will propose immigration legislation of his own and demand lawmakers vote on it.

Reflecting the growing clout of Hispanic voters, Obama traveled to Nevada little more than a week after his second inauguration to make the case for swift bipartisan action on immigration.

"We need Congress to act on a comprehensive approach that finally deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants," Obama said at a high school in Las Vegas.

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, look more kindly on an immigration overhaul.

Obama was speaking a day after a group of influential Senate Democrats and Republicans laid out a broad plan of their own that is similar to White House immigration proposals. (Read More: Senators Unveil 'First Step' Plan on Immigration Reform)

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.

Obama's challenge is to spur progress toward actual legislation guided by the senators' immigration plan without alienating his fiercest Republican opponents, who might oppose anything with the Democratic president's name on it.

Foreshadowing what could be a critical area of disagreement with Republicans, Obama stopped short of backing the Senate group's requirement that providing a path to citizenship be contingent on first doing more to secure the nation's borders -- a concession that was made to appeal to conservatives.

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: Immigration Legislation Top Priority
President Obama offers insight on the Latino vote and immigration reform. He says strong Latino voter turnout is one of the reasons he believes he'll be able to get Congress to go along with comprehensive reform very soon after his inauguration.

Obama's original plan centered on four key areas: a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., improved border security, an overhaul of the legal immigration system, and an easier process 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 currently 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. (Read More: Why Immigration Reform May Happen This Year)

White House spokesman Jay Carney said earlier the president believes the package also should include recognition of gay couples where one partner is American and another is not.

Sen. John McCain called the issue a "red flag" in an interview Tuesday on "CBS This Morning."

The Arizona Republican also said he didn't think the issue was of "paramount importance at this time."

"We'll have to look at it," McCain said. But he added that 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."

Obama's previous proposals for creating a pathway to citizenship required those already in the U.S. 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. (Read More: Obama Offers Immunity to Some Illegal Immigrants)

The Senate group's pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. would be contingent upon securing the border and improving tracking of people in the U.S. 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.

Passage of legislation by the full Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, but the tallest hurdle could come in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who've shown little interest in immigration reform.

The senators involved in formulating the immigration proposals, in addition to McCain, are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Several of these lawmakers have worked for years on the issue. McCain collaborated with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on comprehensive immigration legislation pushed by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, only to see it collapse in the Senate when it couldn't get enough GOP support.

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