WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama made an economic and moral case on Tuesday for the need for comprehensive immigration reform, vowing he would send legislation to Congress and insist on a vote if bipartisan efforts there fail.
"I’m here today because the time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform," he said in a Las Vegas speech laying out his ideas for a bill, surrounded by a crowd of advocates for reform and immigrants who might benefit from it. "The time is now."
A group of eight senators -- four Democrats, four Republicans -- released a framework on Monday of their plans for immigration reform. There are many details to be decided, but they broadly agreed on the need for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an easier legal immigration system, better enforcement and more border security. Members of the House of Representatives are also working on a bipartisan immigration plan, albeit more quietly than in the Senate.
Obama said he is encouraged by that movement, and hopes to build on it. "The good news is that, for first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together," he said.
"I believe we are finally at a moment where comprehensive immigration reform is within our grasp," he added later.
His plans for reform broadly matched with the "gang of eight" framework, but included progressive elements such as a call not mentioned in the speech for same-sex couples to be given equal treatment to heterosexual ones in immigration law, an idea some Republicans have said would essentially kill any bipartisan legislation.
Like the Senate gang, Obama said there must be a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the country. But his proposed pathway, though arduous, would not require certain metrics to be met on border security before green cards could be distributed, a central tenet of the Senate plan meant to stave off charges of "amnesty."
The Senate group's framework would enable undocumented immigrants to immediately gain provisional status that would allow them to remain in the United States, then apply for green cards once certain border enforcement requirements are met, before eventually being eligible to become citizens. The group has not yet determined the exact requirements for considering the border adequately secure to allow immigrants green cards --- "I'll know it when I see it," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the group's leaders, told reporters on Tuesday -- but most immigrants would remain without visas until then.
The president made no such requirements, although he also proposed enhanced border enforcement. Obama laid out his idea for a pathway as he often has before. He said he would require undocumented immigrants to receive a background check, pay taxes and a fine, learn English and go to the "back of the line" behind would-be immigrants who have applied for a visa from outside of the United States.
"It won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process," he said. "And it will lift these individuals out of the shadows, and give them a chance to earn their way to a green card and eventually to citizenship."
He also emphasized enforcement and border security, touting accomplishments the administration has made in that realm already. The Obama administration has repeatedly broken the record for deportations in a fiscal year, last year removing more than 400,000 people. Obama noted that there has been progress, but said there is still more to be done on border security and enforcement, particularly of employers that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants.
Obama also made an economic case for reform. He pointed to businesses such as Intel and Instagram, both started by immigrants, and said any reform package must make immigrating legally easier to navigate for high-skilled workers and graduates with advanced degrees in the United States. He added that the existence of undocumented workers is bad for the economy as a whole.
"It’s not just bad for [undocumented workers], it’s bad for the entire economy, because all the businesses that are trying to do the right thing that are hiring people legally, paying a decent wage, following the rules, they’re the ones who suffer," he said. "They have got to compete against companies that are breaking the rules. And the wages and working conditions of American workers are threatened too."
Some Republicans have expressed trepidation that Obama will hurt bipartisan efforts by being inflexible. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed that sentiment in a statement after the speech. "Any solution should be a bipartisan one, and we hope the President is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate," he said.
Democrats were more effusive about the speech. "The President is handling this perfectly," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the bipartisan group, said in a statement. "He is using the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention on the urgency of immigration reform and set goals for action on this issue. But he is also giving lawmakers on both sides the space to form a bipartisan coalition."
Obama ended his speech by talking about Alan Aleman, a young undocumented immigrant who was recently granted deferred action -- work authorization and the ability to stay in the United States for two years -- under his administration. Aleman is now in college and hopes to become a doctor and join the military, Obama said.
"So in the coming weeks, as the idea of reform becomes more real and the debate becomes more heated, and there are folks who are trying to pull this thing apart, remember Alan and all those who share the same hopes and the same dreams," Obama said. "Remember that this is not just a debate about policy. It’s about people."
Obama's immigration platform is based on the following principles, according to a fact sheet released by the White House:
- Continuing to Strengthen Border Security: President Obama has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents since 2004 and today border security is stronger than it has ever been. But there is more work to do. The President’s proposal gives law enforcement the tools they need to make our communities safer from crime. And by enhancing our infrastructure and technology, the President’s proposal continues to strengthen our ability to remove criminals and apprehend and prosecute national security threats.
- Cracking Down on Employers Hiring Undocumented Workers: Our businesses should only employ people legally authorized to work in the United States. Businesses that knowingly employ undocumented workers are exploiting the system to gain an advantage over businesses that play by the rules. The President’s proposal is designed to stop these unfair hiring practices and hold these companies accountable. At the same time, this proposal gives employers who want to play by the rules a reliable way to verify that their employees are here legally.
- Earned Citizenship: It is just not practical to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants living within our borders. The President’s proposal provides undocumented immigrants a legal way to earn citizenship that will encourage them to come out of the shadows so they can pay their taxes and play by the same rules as everyone else. Immigrants living here illegally must be held responsible for their actions by passing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty, going to the back of the line, and learning English before they can earn their citizenship. There will be no uncertainty about their ability to become U.S. citizens if they meet these eligibility criteria. The proposal will also stop punishing innocent young people brought to the country through no fault of their own by their parents and give them a chance to earn their citizenship more quickly if they serve in the military or pursue higher education.
- Streamlining Legal Immigration: Our immigration system should reward anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. For the sake of our economy and our security, legal immigration should be simple and efficient. The President’s proposal attracts the best minds to America by providing visas to foreign entrepreneurs looking to start businesses here and helping the most promising foreign graduate students in science and math stay in this country after graduation, rather than take their skills to other countries. The President’s proposal will also reunify families in a timely and humane manner.