WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Wednesday that conversations between the White House and members of Congress have begun over immigration reform, adding that lawmakers would introduce a bill "very soon" into his second term.
"This has not historically been a partisan issue," he said in his first press conference since being reelected. "We've had President Bush, John McCain and others who have supported comprehensive immigration reform in the past. So we need to seize the moment."
It is the most optimistic statement the president has made publicly to date about the prospect of accomplishing immigration reform in the next four years. That could be because Republican lawmakers have begun to speak openly about addressing the subject after losing heavily among Latino voters during the 2012 elections.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that they were re-committing themselves to pushing for broad immigration reform, in part as a political necessity for their party. Graham confirmed to The Huffington Post that he was working alongside Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to introduce a bill soon after the new congressional session begins that mimics the plan they laid out in 2010. Graham detailed some of the components that he hoped to pursue shortly after finishing a question-and-answer session at The Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum.
"It is going to be economic-based future immigration, merit-based, economic immigration in the future, firm and fair with the 12 million [undocumented here]," he said. "But we've got to take chained migration and turn it to an economic based immigration system."
Back on Capitol Hill, McCain told reporters that he expects any bill to include visa reform so employers could more easily hire foreign workers they need, but wouldn't speculate as to whether that provision would help more Republicans to get on board.
"Everybody's always agreed that's part of immigration reform, and that was in our Kennedy-McCain bill," he said, referring to the failed bill he advanced with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2005 and again in 2007. "I don't look at it that way. I just view it as an integral part of the package."
"I think most of them are convinced that we need to take it up," he said of his colleagues, adding that he hasn't asked them whether an immigration bill should include a pathway to citizenship.
Those comments were echoed hours later by the president, who clearly wanted the item addressed during his first post-election press conference. Choosing a reporter from Telemundo to ask the third question, Obama responded by laying out a broad framework that followed the lines of bipartisan plans in the past.
"There are going to be a bunch of components to it, but I think whatever process we have needs to make sure border security is strong, needs to deal with employers effectively, needs to provide a pathway for the undocumented here, needs to deal with the Dream Act kids," Obama said of his plan. "And I think that's something that we can get done."
Obama gave himself some wiggle room by saying a bill must include a "pathway to legal status" -- which could include citizenship but wouldn't necessarily, allowing for potential compromise if Republicans insist the plan should allow undocumented immigrants already in the United States to become legal residents but not citizens.
He did use the word "citizenship" for undocumented young people who would be eligible for the Dream Act, as well as for his June directive to block the deportation of immigrants who entered the U.S. as children if they meet certain criteria.
"One thing that I'm very clear about is that young people who are brought here through no fault of their own, who have gone to school here, pledged allegiance to our flag, who want to serve in our military, who want to go to school and contribute to our society, that they shouldn't be under the cloud of deportation, that we should give them every opportunity to earn their citizenship," he said.
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He's been quiet since the election, but it's clear the <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2012/11/10/rubio-immigration-presidential-run/1695791/">GOP is looking to their top Latino star</a> to deliver more votes next presidential election. Rubio is the obvious choice to make the Republican Party's case to Hispanic voters, but will he <a href="http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2012/11/sorry_bill_oreilly_marco_rubio.php">remain opposed to a path to citizenship</a> for the undocumented?
The conservative Fox News commentator, once known for his criticism of anything resembling "amnesty," had this to say after last week's election: "We've gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether. It's simple for me to fix it. I think you control the border first, you create a pathway for those people that are here, you don't say you gotta home. And that is a position that I've evolved on. Because you know what -- it just -- it's gotta be resolved. The majority of people here -- if some people have criminal records you can send' em home -- but if people are here, law-abiding, participating, for years, their kids are born here... first secure the border, pathway to citizenship... then it's done. But you can't let the problem continue. It's gotta stop."
Before the election, House Speaker John Boehner didn't think Marco Rubio's conservative alternative to the DREAM had a chance in the lower chamber. After President Obama trounced the GOP among Latino voters last week, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/us/politics/boehner-confident-of-deal-with-white-house-on-immigration.html">Boehner now says he's "confident"</a> Congress can work out a deal.
Texas' <a href="http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/11/19/121119fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all">Tea Party-backed, Cuban-American U.S. Senator Ted Cruz</a> said after the elections that Republicans "If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community ... in a few short years Republicans will no longer be the majority in our state." But it's not clear whether Cruz is the man to lead the party there. <a href="http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/2012/11/will-identity-politics-work-for-the-gop-wooing-hispanics-in-texas.html/">He only won 35 percent of the Latino vote</a> in Texas, according to a Latino Decisions survey. His vocal opposition to the DREAM Act, deferred action and immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship are precisely the kinds of policy the GOP is looking to back away from in order to woo Latino voters.
After election night, former Mississippi Gov. <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83562.html?hp=l7">Haley Barbour urged his fellow conservatives</a> to change their tune on immigration reform, saying: "we need to have an immigration policy that is good economic policy, and then -- and then the politics will take care of itself." Barbour had favored Marco Rubio's outline for an alternative to the DREAM Act, even going a step farther, saying he supported a path to citizenship.
Republican Iowa Congressman Steve King remains unconvinced that losing the Latino vote means the GOP should back down on its opposition to reform. After the election he fired off this tweet, which makes some kind of association between Santa Claus and a path to citizenship. King likes to compare immigrants to dogs, which he thinks is a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/21/steve-king-immigrants-dogs_n_1998007.html?1350852519">compliment</a>.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who appears to be planning a 2014 reelection run, said in a televised interview that she's "fine and dandy" with immigration reform so long as the federal government secures the border first. It's not clear what her standard for securing the border is, or whether the governor who signed SB 1070 would support a path to citizenship.
On election night, the conservative Fox News host offered up the analysis on prime time television that "the white establishment is now the minority" and that people of color, and women, want "stuff" and "things." Insulting Latinos as freeloaders probably isn't going to warm them up to conservatism. Incidentally, it's also incorrect. Non-white voters only make up 28 percent of the electorate, <a href="http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/2012/11/2012_Latino_vote_exit_poll_analysis_final_11-09.pdf">according to Pew Hispanic Center</a>. Notwithstanding his election night comments, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/19/bill-oreilly-jose-antonio-vargas_n_1610047.html">O'Reilly broke new ground with Jose Antonio Vargas</a> in June, when the conservative Fox News host said he favored offering a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.