Providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants is emerging as a potential stumbling block to rewriting U.S. immigration policy.
Republican senators who endorsed a bipartisan framework for the most significant revision of immigration law in almost three decades criticized a White House plan for not requiring tighter border security as a condition of a path to citizenship.
“One of the things that’s very important to me is to make sure that the enforcement mechanisms happen,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of four Republicans backing the Senate blueprint, said in an interview. “The mistake that’s been made in the past is that while the legalization happened, the enforcement didn’t, and it led to the 11 million people that are here.”
President Barack Obama is seeking to harness political momentum following his strong support from Hispanic voters in November to enact new immigration policy. Democrats say they are encouraged that an increasing number of Republicans have dropped their opposition to providing a path to citizenship as part of such a move.
“The good news is that, for the first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together,” Obama told a cheering audience yesterday at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. “At this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon.”
Still, differences between the president’s outline and the Senate framework are coming into focus, most notably over conditions for allowing those already in the country illegally to become citizens.
In addition to tightened border security, Republicans want a citizenship path to hinge on tracking people in the U.S. on visas. A commission of governors, community members, and attorneys general living on the Southwest border would make a recommendation when the security measures are completed.
The White House plan doesn’t link citizenship to security, out of concerns that a longer process could make it almost impossible for those immigrants to gain full status.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 396,906 people in fiscal year 2011 and a record 409,849 in fiscal 2012 according to figures released by the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Obama also supports equal treatment of same-sex couples when one partner is from outside the U.S. That provision isn’t included in the Senate framework and may be opposed by some Republicans.
“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,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said following Obama’s remarks.
Boehner, of Ohio, is among Republicans who have said the party must find a more positive approach to immigration policy. Hispanics, a rapidly growing group of U.S. voters, cast 71 percent of their votes for Obama on Nov. 6, according to exit polls.
The increasing political clout of Hispanic voters, who make up 10 percent of the electorate and 16.7 percent of the population, has prompted Republicans who long opposed an immigration overhaul to reevaluate their position.
An immigration rewrite has drawn the backing of religious organizations, law enforcement, and companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Goldman Sachs, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Intel Corp. (INTC), and Google Inc. (GOOG) as they seek to hire more foreign workers.
Of the 47 million new workers entering the labor force between 2010 and 2050, a projected 37.6 million will be Hispanic, according to an October 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. The percentage of Hispanics in the workforce will grow to 18.6 percent by 2020 and to 30 percent in 2050, doubling from 15 percent in 2010, according to the report.
Speaking yesterday at a school where more than 62 percent of the students are Hispanic, Obama warned that if immigration legislation is bogged down in Congress, he would send his plan to the Capitol and insist lawmakers vote on it “right away.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, cautioned that the president “has put his arms around the four senators on the Democratic side and the Republican side, but with the caveat he’s not going to wait around forever to actually have legislation that we move on.”
Obama gave tentative endorsement to the framework that the Republican and Democratic senators unveiled Jan. 28, saying the proposal was “very much in line with the principles I proposed and campaigned on.”
Another of the Republicans who crafted the Senate plan, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake said he will insist that citizenship can happen only after a “measurable increases in border security.”
“This provision is key to ensuring that border security is achieved, and is also necessary to ensure that a reform package can actually move through Congress,” Flake said in a statement.
Flake called on Obama to embrace a temporary worker program that the senator said is necessary “to ensure that future labor needs are addressed.”
The Republican senators negotiating a plan include his 2008 presidential opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, along with Rubio, a top surrogate for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney who also is seen as a possible 2016 presidential contender.
Immigration legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 made three million undocumented workers eligible for legal status and created a market for fraudulent documentation. Illegal immigration soared, casting a shadow of subsequent efforts to legalize immigrants.
An effort by President George W. Bush in 2007 to rewrite immigration law failed amid public ire over illegal immigration.
“Immigration reform, like tax and Social Security reform, is very complex,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law expert and professor of law at Cornell University. “Even if everyone wants reform, it may still take a long time to get a bill through Congress.”
The plan may face its toughest test in the Republican-led House, which is dominated by lawmakers who’ve expressed little interest in immigration laws beyond tightening border security.
“Until the administration creates a comprehensive border security plan that includes a reasonable definition of operational control we can measure, we cannot quantify success or failure,” House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, said in a statement. “The Senate blueprint appropriately made securing our borders a priority, while the administration appears content to once again neglect to do so.”
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