Obama’s Big Immigrant Fix
Washington — The Obama administration has developed its own proposals for immigration reform that are more liberal than a separate bipartisan effort in the Senate, including a quicker path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, people with knowledge of the proposals said.
President Obama is expected to provide some details of the White House plans during an appearance in Las Vegas today, where he will call for sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration laws. The speech kicks off a public push by the administration in support of the broadest overhaul of immigration law in nearly three decades.
Obama plans to praise the reform proposals laid out yesterday by an eight-member Senate working group, saying they reflect the core tenets of the administration’s immigration blueprint developed in 2011, a senior administration official said.
But the president’s remarks also are likely to emphasize differences that could foreshadow roadblocks to passage in Congress at a time when both parties say there is momentum for a comprehensive deal.
For example, the Senate proposal would let illegal immigrants obtain legal residency quickly. But it would not allow them to seek full citizenship until border security had been improved and a new system was in place for employers to verify the employment status of workers.
Obama will not endorse such a proposal, the administration official said. The president intends to make clear the need for a more straightforward route for undocumented workers and students to obtain citizenship, reflecting fears among advocates that a cumbersome process would create a decades-long wait for some migrants.
“We see the Senate principles as a centrist set of principles, but we expect the administration to be more detailed to the left,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading immigration advocacy group. “I don’t think it’ll be an immigration advocate’s dream, but it will be a solid left-of-center proposal.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney sought to close the gap between the White House and the Senate group during his daily briefing with reporters yesterday, calling the Capitol Hill announcement “a big deal” because it includes a path to citizenship supported by four senators from each party. Similar provisions - opposed by many Republicans who think they would reward lawbreakers over those who come to the country legally - helped doom previous attempts to overhaul immigration in 2007 and 2010.
“This is in keeping with the principles the president has been espousing for a long time, in keeping with bipartisan efforts in the past and with the effort this president believes has to end in a law that he can sign,” Carney said.
He declined to say whether the White House objects to the proposal from the Senate group that would tie citizenship to border security and employment-verification measures. But he noted the administration’s focus on border-security issues, which included deporting nearly 410,000 immigrants in 2012, an all-time high.
The borders “have never been better enforced than they are now,” Carney said.
The White House’s immigration plans have been in the works for months. Senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said the White House has developed specific legislative language spelling out Obama’s proposals. But they said they are not going to make the language public at this point because the administration is encouraged by the Senate group’s progress.
The president also is likely to support treating same-sex couples in which one partner is an immigrant the same as married heterosexual couples - meaning gay and lesbian immigrants in relationships with U.S. citizens could apply for citizenship. Such a provision is almost certain to draw opposition from Catholic and Baptist groups that have been supportive of comprehensive reform.
Immigration advocates said they expect Obama to be forceful in his public remarks Tuesday and offer details that go beyond the blueprint on the White House website. But there are risks for the president, who has accused Republicans of opposing his initiatives to avoid giving him political credit.
If Obama’s speech in Las Vegas, in a state with a growing number of Hispanic voters, is too triumphant or too hectoring, he could risk alienating Republicans whose support will be necessary, some lawmakers have said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned Obama against delivering a “divisive, partisan speech.”
Yet the White House also is mindful that Latino and Asian voters expect him to follow through on immigration reform after failing to achieve it in his first term. Obama had promised to make immigration the key initiative of his second term, but it took a back seat to gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.
In the meantime, the Senate working group, which had originally targeted its announcement for Friday, moved it up in advance of Obama’s speech. Senate aides said the White House had minimal involvement in the bipartisan talks, preferring a hands-off approach, in part because of failed bipartisan efforts on deficit reduction and other issues.
One White House official said Obama spoke Sunday to Senate Democrats who briefed him on the group’s progress, which came more quickly than the White House expected.
Despite the optimism of Yesterday’s announcement, senators on both sides acknowledged that they must settle several thorny issues before drafting a bill. They aim to introduce legislation by the end of March.
Democratic aides said the process could receive a boost if Obama champions a framework that provides a smoother path to citizenship. The Senate outline would appear more centrist by comparison, potentially making it easier for Republicans to support. A progressive White House plan would also help prevent the Senate effort from getting pushed much further to the right over time.
Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, called the parallel efforts “a healthy competition” between the White House and the Senate.
“The inevitable question for the White House was: How does a legislative initiative get underway?” Kelley said. “To some extent, the senators answered that, so it’s a nice coupling of developments.”