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Obama’s Immigration Push to Test Limits of Bipartisan Framework

President Obama points to the crowd after delivering remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Jan. 29. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

In his call for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration system on Tuesday, President Obama was at once signaling the importance of the issue to his second term agenda and testing how much pressure the bipartisan framework being developed in the Senate could withstand.

The president called the blueprint unveiled Monday by the so-called Gang of Eight “very encouraging” and said it was “very much in line with the principles” he had previously proposed and campaigned on in recent years.

But Mr. Obama, a veteran of the 2006 and 2007 immigration pushes in Congress that ultimately collapsed under Republican opposition, said this time “action must follow” or he, as president, would intervene.

“We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We’ve been debating this a very long time,” the president told the crowd gathered at a campaign-style event at a Las Vegas high school. “And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”

The bipartisan Senate plan would create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country, but only after certain security measures are implemented.

The president suggested Tuesday that the citizenship process should not be tied to other provisions. “For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship,” he said.

Mr. Obama laid out a process that included background checks, paying taxes and a fine, learning English, and getting in line behind immigrants who are trying to come to the country legally. “That means it won’t be a quick process but it will be a fair process,” the president said.

One of the Republican members of the bipartisan Senate group, Florida’s Marco Rubio, defended the decision to link the citizenship process to to border security standards.

“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,” Rubio said in a statement released Tuesday.

Another warning came from the office of House Speaker John Boehner. “There are a lot of ideas about how to best fix our broken immigration system,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “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.”

The first hearing on immigration reform in the House will be held Tuesday.

For the president, there is no hiding the significance of making immigration reform the focus of the first trip of his second term, a point underscored by the involvement in the push by his campaign infrastructure.

Jim Messina, who ran the Obama re-election effort, dropped a note to the president’s political email list urging backers to get involved.

“Working together, we can fix our immigration system so everyone plays by the same rules,” he wrote, outlining four “steps” in the president’s proposal:

  • Continue to strengthen and secure our borders;
  • Crack down on companies that hire undocumented workers;
  • Establish a legal path to earned citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here — including children who were brought here through no fault of their own;
  • And streamline legal immigration for those who are already playing by the rules.

Messina called the bipartisan Senate plan “an encouraging sign” for working together, and consistent with what Mr. Obama wants.

“It won’t be easy, and our success is in no way guaranteed,” he wrote. “But if we stick together, and keep at it, we can accomplish something truly historic.”

Going forward, the question becomes how much of his vision the president is willing to forego in order to allow the fragile bipartisan coalition in the Senate to move forward.

The NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff detailed the plan Tuesday night. Gwen Ifill followed that report with a debate between two players in the debate with wildly different views on the issue: Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who helped craft Arizona’s strict immigration measure and Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza.

Martinez de Castro was optimistic:

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.

Kobach said he thinks the fiscal costs of what he dubs “amnesty” would ultimately torpedo any plan, saying they would be much higher than the $2.7 trillion a Congressional Budget Office score said a pathway to citizenship would cost in 2007.

“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,” he said.

Watch the segment here or below:

Christina solicited two takes on the issue in our newsroom, talking with NDN’s Simon Rosenberg on the left and Hispanic Leadership Network’s Jennifer Korn on the right. Both are veterans of the 2006 and 2007 efforts to pass a comprehensive plan. She noted that George W. Bush wrote in his memoir not passing immigration reform was one of his top regrets, and asked them to assess the president’s push.

You can watch that here.

Watch the president’s Las Vegas speech in full here or below:


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Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.

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