US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that long-sought reforms to a “broken” immigration system were within the US’ grasp, seeking to lock in rare momentum toward a major cross-party compromise.
Obama laid out principles on the divisive issue that would nudge 11 million illegal immigrants slowly toward citizenship within stronger US borders and let prized foreign students stay on after graduation to boost the US economy.
He also praised a bipartisan group of US senators who on Monday unveiled their own guidelines for legislation on an issue that would represent a major legacy achievement for Obama at the start of his final White House term.
“The question now is simple. Do we have the resolve as a people, as a country, as a government, to finally put this issue behind us? I believe that we do,” Obama said during a lightning stop in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I believe we are finally at a moment where comprehensive reform is within our grasp,” Obama said, at a point in history when Republicans want to thwart Democratic primacy among Hispanic voters, for whom immigration is a key issue.
“Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time,” Obama said.
The president sought to harness signs of unusual consensus in sharply divided Washington over immigration reform, six years after the last attempt to overhaul the system ended in a spectacular and politically toxic failure.
The president said that his plan, first unveiled in detail in 2011, covered similar ground as the US Senate approach.
Both plans would broadly:
‧ Offer illegal immigrants a long path to permanent residency and citizenship, requiring them to pay back taxes, learn English, have background checks and demonstrate familiarity with US culture.
‧ Include efforts to strengthen US borders and visa systems and speed a path out of limbo by young people brought to the country illegally by their parents.
‧ Improve worker verification systems that deter illegal immigration and dismantle barriers to highly skilled foreign workers entering the US to catalyze future economic growth.
However, there are some major and politically problematic differences:
‧ The Senate plan makes the scheme offering a route to citizenship contingent on the completion of certain enforcement measures. Obama’s would not.
‧ The president’s plan also treats same-sex couples the same as straight ones, ie, a US citizen’s same-sex partner would have the same rights to come to the US as another person’s straight spouse.
The differences are a possible irritant as the White House and Republicans seek a compromise, both sides hope, by later this year.
One prominent Republican, rising star US Sentator Marco Rubio — who may run for president in 2016 — warned on Tuesday that he would not back any bill that did not include a “trigger mechanism” for enforcement.
“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,” Rubio said.
Republicans are sensitive to any claims by their conservative base voters that the path to citizenship equates in any way to “amnesty,” an explosive charge that contributed to the failure of immigration reform in 2007.
While reflecting hope, Obama displayed his customary impatience with the inertia that often descends on Congress, promising that if lawmakers did not act within a “timely” manner, he would send up his own bill and demand a vote.
Reactions to the speech reflected hopeful caution that change could be at hand.
US Senator John McCain, a key Republican player, said he appreciated Obama’s support for the Senate plans, and stressed that border security enforcement was particularly important.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for US House Speaker John Boehner, advised Obama not to “drag the debate to the left,” in a sign that the Republican party leadership faces a tough sell on immigration reform to its members in the House.
Key Democratic US Senator Chuck Schumer complimented the president for handling the issue “perfectly” by stressing urgency while allowing both sides space to form a coalition.
Treacherous politics dashed similar reform efforts under former US president George W. Bush, but the rising muscle of Hispanic voters has shifted political calculations and created the most favorable climate for reform in years.
Obama repeatedly promised during his first term to push immigration reform and successfully laid the blame on gridlock on Republicans, who paid a heavy price as Hispanic voters flocked to the president in the presidential election in November last year.