President Obama, saying he was encouraged to see a growing “sense of empowerment and civic participation” among Latino voters in last week’s election, predicted Wednesday that there would be action on immigration reform “very soon” after his second inauguration in January.
In his first press conference since winning reelection, Mr. Obama said White House staff are already discussing legislation with members of Congress. He said he expects a bill to be introduced in Congress and acted upon soon after Inauguration Day, which is Jan. 20, 2013.
“This has not historically been a partisan issue,” Obama said, speaking in the East Room of the White House. “We've had President Bush, John McCain, and others who have supported comprehensive immigration reform in the past. So we need to seize the moment.”
Prominent Latinos had criticized Obama during the campaign for failing to enact reform during his first term, and for boosting deportations. But Obama also won kudos for using executive action to put in a place a process that allows young undocumented immigrants – so-called “DREAMers” – to avoid deportation.
Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote last week, and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney just 27 percent, triggering among many Republicans an instant rethink of their opposition to comprehensive reform.
The headline on an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, released Wednesday, demonstrates the political urgency of reaching out to Latinos: “An awakened giant: the Hispanic electorate is likely to double by 2030.”
During the presidential campaign, former Governor Romney’s reference to “self-deportation” reinforced the image of the Republican Party as lacking compassion toward Hispanics who are in the United States illegally.
House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican lawmakers are now talking about moving on the issue quickly. Still, the issue of creating a path to citizenship remains problematic.
In his remarks Wednesday, Obama did not mention the words “citizenship” or “amnesty,” but he did say there should be a “pathway for legal status” for those living and working in the United States who are not engaged in criminal activity.
“It's important for them to pay back taxes, it's important for them to learn English, it's important for them to potentially pay a fine, but to give them the avenue whereby they can resolve their legal status here in this country, I think is very important,” Obama said.
The president said that his concept of “comprehensive reform” is similar to the outline of previous efforts that have sat dormant. In addition to creating a path to legal status, he said, reform should continue the border security measures that are already in place; contain “serious penalties” for companies that hire undocumented workers; and enshrine in law his new measure to help young undocumented immigrants.
The president also spoke of making it easier for both highly educated immigrants and agricultural workers to stay in the US legally.
Advocates for comprehensive immigration reform reacted positively to Obama’s remarks.