Immigration reform appears likely with President Barack Obama’s announcement on reform Tuesday and Senate proposals indicating bipartisan support. Progress, however, remains to be seen, with some Congress members linking any reform to stronger border security.
Speaking from Nevada, where Hispanic voters were critical to his win in the state, Obama said that it is time to act on immigration in the United States.
“I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. “The time is now. Now is the time.”
Obama’s proposals include strengthening border security, establishing a path to earned citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in America, and improvements to the legal immigration system.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” he added.
A bipartisan group of eight senators has also proposed a plan for immigration reform, not dissimilar to the president’s. The “Gang of Eight,” including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), also want to further strengthen border security, create a pathway to citizenship, and improve the legal immigration system, but it is the order in which that agenda should be approached that marks the difference between the proposed plans.
The Senate’s plan places action on tougher security at the U.S.-Mexican border above a pathway to citizenship, suggesting a slower process for undocumented migrants to gain legal status.
Obama’s plan requires immigrants to go through security and criminal background checks, pay penalties, learn English, and get in line behind those who have applied for citizenship legally, but he does not link that process to the tougher border security measures he includes in his proposals.
“We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship,” he said.
Lawmakers Challenge Proposals
Some Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate were quick to criticize Obama’s proposals, and their reactions suggest that a path to immigration reform may be protracted, despite bipartisan agreement that reform is necessary.
House Republicans said that more must be done with border security before they will accept a pathway to citizenship.
“Our immigration laws aren’t broken, they just aren’t enforced,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a news release.
Smith, former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that border control is still inadequate, as the U.S. Border Patrol is controlling less than one-half of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“When you legalize those who are in the country illegally,” said Smith, “it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs, and encourages more illegal immigration.”
In a speech Tuesday, Rubio echoed Smith’s concerns.
“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,” said Rubio in a statement.
The congressmen’s calls, however, are unlikely to deter Obama who, in heeding them in his first term, deported more people on immigration violations than any other president in history, losing Hispanic support along the way.
Obama was nevertheless able to regain that support through initiatives toward the end of his first term, including a partial DREAM Act that allowed young illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before they were 16 to work and attend college. He also included immigration reform in his second-term election campaign and flagged it as an issue in his inaugural speech.
The Hispanic community has responded with cautious optimism to both the proposals.
Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, welcomed “common-sense immigration policy” but noted that immigration is a complex issue. She warned that a path to citizenship is critical in order for reform to be meaningful.
“We will be watching, for example, to see whether the border security benchmarks are reasonable, or if they create a path to citizenship in name only,” said Kelly in an email.
Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), praised the interest from both the president and Congress and clearly laid out where the NCLR’s priorities lay.
“Even more heartening is that the president’s plan contains a straighter path to citizenship for new Americans than yesterday’s Senate proposal,” said Murguía in a press statement.
Murguía urged lawmakers to consider the well-being of those on the quest for citizenship in their decision-making.
“A rational solution to modernizing our immigration system and making it fair and equitable is on the horizon,” she said. “We urge Washington to continue working together to make those critical changes a reality.”
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