Obama on immigration reform: I'll act if Congress doesn't

President Obama praised a bipartisan Senate effort on immigration reform but also warned that if lawmakers get bogged down, he’ll send Congress a bill based on the proposal he outlined Tuesday.

Isaac Brekken/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.

President Obama on Tuesday praised a bipartisan Senate effort to overhaul the US immigration system and said he’d wait for Congress to take the lead on this issue.

“At this moment, it looks like there is a genuine desire to get this done soon, and that’s very encouraging,” Mr. Obama said in what officials billed as a major speech on the subject in Las Vegas.

But the president indicated that his patience is provisional. He laid out principles he said should be reflected in any comprehensive immigration-reform legislation, and he said that if lawmakers get bogged down bickering, he’ll act.

“If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist they vote on it right away,” Obama said.

Obama seemed to be trying to accomplish the difficult feat of appearing to exert presidential leadership while letting a rare moment of bipartisanship bloom. He probably knows that if he demands certain details right now, he’ll polarize the situation and make it harder for lawmakers to come together.

House Speaker John Boehner’s response to the speech hinted at how that dynamic might play out.

“There are a lot of ideas about how best to 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.”

Given that response, it’s difficult to see how a White House-drafted bill would make any progress in the GOP-dominated House, should the current congressional effort languish.

As with the bipartisan Senate approach announced Monday, Obama says he wants immigration reform to reflect strengthened border security, a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the US, and a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers.

Unlike the Senate effort, Obama would not condition the citizenship process on further security efforts. He would move immediately to allow undocumented workers to register, pass a background check, pay taxes and a fine, and then qualify for a probationary legal status.

“Individuals must wait until the existing legal immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line to apply for lawful permanent residency (i.e. a ‘green card’), and ultimately United States citizenship,” according to a White House fact sheet.

This might take some time for the individuals involved, Obama said on Tuesday.

“It won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process, and it will lift these individuals out of the shadows,” he said in Las Vegas.

According to the White House, the administration is proposing mandatory, phased-in electronic employment verification. For most employers, use of the current E-Verify immigration-status system is largely voluntary.

Obama is also pushing use of fraud- and tamper-resistant Social Security cards and other documents to prove immigration status. In the past, proposals for a national identity card have proved controversial in Congress, to say the least.

Unlike the Senate effort, Obama’s plan would treat same-sex immigrant couples the same as heterosexual couples for the purpose of family reunification. It would also create a “start-up visa,” allowing entrepreneurs with established financing to locate in the US.

“If you succeed, you’ll create American businesses, and American jobs,” said Obama.

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