TOPICS > Politics

Obama Pushes Immigration Reform at White House Ceremony for New Citizens

March 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At a ceremony at the White House for 28 new U.S. citizens, President Barack Obama called on Congress to come together on immigration reform. Judy Woodruff talks with Sara Murray of The Wall Street Journal about how Senate negotiations got hung up on the issue of lower-skilled worker wages.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to politics, as President Obama today applied pressure to congressional lawmakers on the issue of immigration reform at an East Room ceremony.

SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY JANET NAPOLITANO, United States: Candidates, please raise your right hand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: 28 immigrants from more than two dozen countries rose to take the oath of U.S. citizenship this morning at the White House. Then, President Obama welcomed the newly minted citizens, 13 of them members of the U.S. military. And he used the occasion to push Congress again on immigration reform.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, United States: We have all proposed solutions. And we have got a lot of white papers and studies. We have just got at this point to work up the political courage to do what’s required to be done. So I expect a bill to be put forward. I expect the debate to begin next month. I want to sign that bill into law as soon as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, bipartisan efforts are under way in both the House and Senate to craft immigration overhaul plans. Details are still being hammered out, but the president today restated his goals.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We know that really form means continuing to strengthen our border security and holding employers accountable. We know that real reform means providing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the shadows.

We know that real reform requires modernizing the legal immigration system, so that our citizens don’t have to wait years before their loved ones are able to join them in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Senate’s so-called gang of eight negotiators had hoped to have agreement last week on a plan that is close to the president’s priorities. But a dispute arose over wages and visas for lower-skilled guest workers. If that can be resolved, lawmakers could introduce a plan after Congress returns from a two-week recess.

To walk us through the political state of play, we’re joined by reporter Sara Murray. She has been following the issue for the Wall Street Journal.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

SARA MURRAY, Wall Street Journal: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the president calling on Congress to finish the job. Why did he make this statement now, Sara?

SARA MURRAY: Well, look, I think that it’s clear that the Senate kind of missed their mark by not having a deal before they went on a two-week recess.

And so I think this is the president is saying, hey, look I’m encouraged by what you have been doing. I am giving you the space to kind of hash out your own bill, but I’m also watching you. And everyone knows the president has his own bill. And he wants this stuff to kind of move speedily along. I think this is a warning that says, hey, guys, make sure you’re still doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, where do things stand? As we reported, they were — we thought it — it was thought they were getting close, but then it didn’t happen. Where does everything stand right now?

SARA MURRAY: Well, Friday was a really interesting day, because you talk to people who are negotiating this, at around 3:00 p.m., a lot of people who are familiar with these talks, we can get a deal, it will be great, we will all got off on recess, everything will go off fine.

And then a few hours later, things just completely fell apart. There was an issue with how you set the wages, not for the current people who are — the current immigrants who are in the U.S., but people who want to come here in the future and be hotel workers, maids, janitors, that kind of thing.

And negotiations really fell apart between the unions and the business groups.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they were literally discussing wages for future workers?

SARA MURRAY: Yes. And this is the last sort of big part that hasn’t fallen into place. A guest-worker program is how we refer to it. It’s this future flow of workers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are the, as you said, lower-skilled workers who would work in hotels, restaurants, doing landscaping and so forth.

SARA MURRAY: Right, absolutely.

And in some of these cases, I mean, people who are familiar with said, we’re talking about a couple dollars an hour. That’s where talks fell apart at, the difference between paying, say, a housekeeper $10 dollars an hour or eight dollars an hour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we also know, Sara, from your reporting and others that there are huge interests on the outside watching all this very closely, business interests, organized labor. What role are they playing in all this?

SARA MURRAY: Well, they originally tried to be in the same room, business and labor, and kind of try to hash out a future guest-worker program. That pretty much fell apart.

So, what we have are, we have these eight senators in a room with their staffers hashing out a deal and then taking parts back to labor and taking parts back to business and saying, well, what do you think about this? Will you guys get on board with this? And that’s really where they have been hitting these difficult parts. They just can’t get everyone on board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How is this different, Sara, from what happened in 2006 and 2007, when the Senate worked, did pass a bill, it went to conference with the House, and nothing ever came of it?

SARA MURRAY: Well, I think the big difference is just the climate.

You know, we don’t hear people running around saying — well, at least not as frequently — saying, let’s round up these 11 million people and deport them. I think that rhetoric kind of died with the 2012 presidential campaign. Republicans got a big wakeup call that they weren’t doing themselves any favors with Hispanics.

So, we have really seen the opposition to immigration reform among Republicans die down. And that’s been a big change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s still not enough to push them — the two sides together to an agreement in the Senate?


I mean, the fact is this is a really difficult and complex issue. So, we’re not saying that there won’t be any agreement. I think you will still see a bill that comes out of the Senate. But I think it’s proving a lot more difficult, even among the most well-intentioned people, to come up with an agreement that works for business, that works for labor and that the senators can then go out and sell.

I mean, these guys have to go back to their districts and convince a bunch of people who still might not be in favor of immigration reform that this is the right thing for the country. And that is a tough sell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the role of the House of Representatives in all this?

SARA MURRAY: The House has a similar track going on. They also have a bipartisan group of eight. And apparently that’s the big thing.

And they’re working on their own bill. They are also saying that they could have something come out right after the recess. They seem to have been OK with letting the Senate take the lead and kind of let the focus be on the Senate and let these guys be under the scrutiny. We will see if that still holds up when they get back from recess.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned earlier the White House has language. They have a bill. They have been holding it back. They haven’t put it out there.

What is the leverage that the White House has? Do they really believe if they — if the Senate and the House can’t come together, that the White House puts its own language out?

SARA MURRAY: Well, look, I think we saw the president’s bill was leaked. Parts of it were leaked earlier this year.

So, we do know he has a bill. And I think the leverage that the president has is, he’s basically saying, look, I want this to be a bipartisanship solution. He gets to rise above it all, rise above the politics and say, if there’s a bipartisan solution to be had, then great. And Republicans can kind of get their little bit of political capital.

But the truth is, if you guys fumble on this issue, if it doesn’t seem like Republicans and business can come to the table, then, hey, I’m stepping in and taking over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, there is some urgency to all of this.

If you listen to the president, he’s saying they have — you have got to do this next month or get to it.

SARA MURRAY: Right. There is urgency.

And he’s — the president basically is talking about the same time frame the Senate has, which is get to work on this in April. Get to this in the Senate in April. But I think that there’s still a big question about whether that can happen if you still have business and labor at each other’s throats, and the deadline now is two weeks away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sara Murray, the Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

SARA MURRAY: Thank you.