JUDY WOODRUFF: One week into his second term, President Obama officially took on the issue of immigration today. He said it comes down to a simple question: whether the country and the government have the resolve, finally, to deal with the long-festering national challenge.
The president launched his effort in Nevada, where more than a quarter of the state's residents are Hispanic.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, United States: I'm here today because the time has come for commonsense comprehensive immigration reform.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The campaign-style event at a Las Vegas high school came a day after a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators put forward their own plan. It calls for creating a path to legal citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people now estimated to be living in the U.S.
Implementing that policy would be contingent on securing the southern border. Seven years ago, then Senator Obama joined a similar effort.
BARACK OBAMA: If the compromise that's been discussed and has the agreement of those who were in this room, if that ends up being the bill that is signed into law, it's a win-win for everybody.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, President Obama praised the new Senate effort. But he said the path to citizenship must be clear from the start and not just be tied to border security.
BARACK OBAMA: We have got to lay out a path, a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally.
That's only fair.
All right? So that means it won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Washington, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a member of the bipartisan Senate group, still seemed concerned the president wanted to move too far too fast.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: If this endeavor becomes a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest, quickest and cheapest pathway to green card possible, this thing is not going to go well, folks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he's withholding judgment for now.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: I think predicting how one is going to vote on this package before it gets out of committee is something I'm not prepared to do.
But I will say -- what I will say is there is obviously bipartisan desire to move forward on immigration legislation. And my assumption is the majority leader will be doing that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That would be Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, who said lawmakers must act soon.
SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: I'm very, very hopeful. The president is in Las Vegas today. He has put his arms around the four senators on the Democratic side and the Republican side, but with a caveat. He is not going to wait around forever to actually have legislation that we move on.
JUDY WOODRUFF: On the NewsHour last night, two members of the bipartisan group talked up their plan's prospect.
Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois:
SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-Ill.: Well, I don't want to say confident because I'm a senator.
DICK DURBIN: And, you know, I spend my whole life disappointed. I have been 12 years on the DREAM Act.
But I have never felt better about it and more positive.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who said the election results got lawmakers' attention, even those who doubt immigration reform.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: There is motivation to get it behind us for those who don't want to deal with it as well. And so I think that we have the planets aligned here now to move ahead.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The biggest hurdle could come in the Republican-controlled House, where another bipartisan group is working on a competing plan. The first House committee hearing takes place next Tuesday.
GWEN IFILL: We take a closer look now at how the politics of the immigration debate are unfolding with Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza, and Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped write Arizona's strict immigration law.
Welcome to you both.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, as you listened to the president say we have come so far so fast, as you listened to Marco Rubio say maybe too fast, does it feel like you have turned a corner in this fight?
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO, National Council of La Raza: Definitely have turned the corner.
And the reality is that it may seem fast, but let's not forget that this issue of immigration has been debated in Congress numerous times. One of the reasons why we are moving forward with it is because indeed so much ground has been laid before in previous debates. And I think what we have right now is the political imperative, the moral imperative, and the economic imperative aligning to create the pressure and the space that Congress needs to take action.
GWEN IFILL: Kris Kobach, what about those imperatives? Are they coming together in a way that you would like to see them?
SECRETARY OF STATE KRIS KOBACH, Kansas: Well, I actually don't think they're coming together in the way that so many people who are hyping this supposedly momentum think they're coming together.
There's one really big factor that everybody is missing here. And that is the biggest stumbling block to an amnesty for 11 million or more illegal aliens, and that is the price tag. The last time an amnesty of similar size was contemplated in the Congress was 2007. And it was calculated that it would cost the country $2.6 trillion over 10 years because you make all of these predominantly low-skilled illegal aliens eligible for food stamps, WIC, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, all welfare programs.
And the -- because their contributions into the system are so much lower than a higher-skilled, higher-wage employee, they will be net drags on our fiscal problem. So we will be $2.6 trillion farther in the hole. We have to remember the number-one thing in front of Congress right now is fixing our fiscal mess. And this is just going to make our debt problem so much worse.
So I think once the numbers start coming out on the proposal and once it's actually laid out in terms of bill language, you're going to see a lot of members of both parties stepping back and saying, oh, I didn't realize it would cause that problem. And so I would ...
GWEN IFILL: You have made your point.
I wanted Clarissa Martinez de Castro to respond to the cost question.
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: Actually, this is a very interesting thing.
The 2006 immigration bill had a congressional budget score of a net gain of $12 billion. And the 2007 bill had a Congressional Budget Office score of $24 billion. And so I think most economic studies out there have confirmed that there is expected to see a net gain to our economy from a legalization program, but the most important thing...
KRIS KOBACH: The CBO score ...
GWEN IFILL: Allow her to -- just allow her to finish. Just allow her to finish. And I will be right back with you.
KRIS KOBACH: OK.
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: But the most important thing to also take into account is that, over the past four years, 1.6 million immigrants have been deported, and just last year at a cost of $18 billion.
And so I think what we need really is an immigration system for the 21st century. I know Mr. Kobach wants to keep promoting anti-immigrant laws and in many ways is opposed to illegal immigration, but we need a system that works.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kobach?
KRIS KOBACH: Well, I think that last characterization was completely inaccurate.
I and many other Americans who favor the rule of law are very much in favor of legal immigration. We are a country based on the rule of law, but illegal immigration does no good for our economy. And in terms of those costs, the CBO numbers don't take into account those -- the Medicaid, Medicare and all the other welfare program costs in the out-years.
So, it is a huge, huge drag on our fiscal situation if we basically give access to all of these programs to this large number of people. And then we also have to remember what happened last time we had an amnesty in 1986. Immediately, we saw 398,000 cases of fraud. Those are the ones the INS caught, where people came into the country and claimed they were eligible when they really weren't, or in the case of Mahmud "The Red" Abouhalima, one of the ringleaders of the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, he claimed he was eligible.
He was already in the country. He was in New York City driving a cab. He claimed he was an agricultural worker. So, there's going to be all kinds of fraud.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, I want to ask you about another piece of this, big piece of this, and this is the border security part. Both sides seem to agree, both the White House and the Senate group and the people who are working on this in the House, that nothing can happen unless there's some sort of agreement on border security, on enforcement triggers.
Is this -- do we see anything emerging that would speak to that or that we could really measure it?
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: I think the president has a pretty strong track record on that arena.
GWEN IFILL: Too strong a track record for you?
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: Well, the facts are the facts.
He has in fact committed more resources to the border, more boots on the ground. He has the numbers to prove it. He's deported more people than any previous administration. And the reality is that a lot of those things have been exhausted. The next step is to have legislation to fix some of other pieces, like a verification process that works not just for employers, but also for workers, right?
We want to make sure that people who are eligible to work don't get prevented from having a job because of errors in the program. Where we are right now is that we have tinkered around the edges of this problem so long, we have exhausted that. Now we need to take the bull by the horns and really fix -- you know, fix the rule of law. And a legalization program is a critical part of that, but also preserve the rule of law by having a working legal immigration system.
GWEN IFILL: Kris Kobach, what about that? Is there a working legal immigration system in place, and do any of the plans you hear being discussed ensure that?
KRIS KOBACH: Well, I mean, our legal immigration system is working. And it's the most generous one on the planet.
And we regularly bring in more than a million green cards holders every year. And we process hundreds of thousands of non-immigrant visas, which are temporary visas, every year. This claim that the system is broke and that somehow we have to just start all over from scratch is wrong.
And as far as her claim that the Obama administration has a record to run on enforcing the law, they have brought work site enforcement to a halt. And their numbers, the deportation numbers, it was revealed by a congressional inquiry last year that actually they have been cooking the books and counting turnarounds at the border as deportations since 2010. And those were never counted before.
So, once you take those out, we see that deportation numbers, not surprisingly, are way down right now. And as far as the proposal that the senators came up with, there's really not much there on the enforcement side of the equation. So, it's a very lopsided proposal. And I think that too is probably going to give some Republicans pause, especially in the House.
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: Gwen, the reality is that I think, like the majority of the American public, I'm not interested in a food fight.
I'm interested in putting a solution on the table. And I think that the fact that we have an undocumented population of this size speaks to the fact that the system is not working.
GWEN IFILL: Kris Kobach, the final word, briefly.
KRIS KOBACH: Well, it speaks to the fact that we haven't tried a strategy of strictly enforcing our laws and encouraging people to comply with the law, which means go home.
GWEN IFILL: Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, and Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza, thank you both very much.
CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO: Thank you. Thank you.
KRIS KOBACH: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: There's more on the immigration debate online. NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni talked to two activists from past reform efforts.