Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama promised Hispanic congressional leaders that he’ll move quickly to push a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws through Congress.
Obama next week will begin a public campaign to build support for a broad immigration package that will include a pathway to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“He made it very clear that this is his number one legislative priority,” Democratic Representative Xavier Becerra of California, said after meeting yesterday with Obama at the White House. “In every sense of the word he is in the starting gate.”
The immigration proposal will be the centerpiece of the president’s planned stop on Jan. 29 in Las Vegas, Nevada, a state that Obama won in the last two elections and where Hispanics make up 27 percent of the population.
Passage of a comprehensive immigration bill would fulfill a promise Obama made in both of his presidential campaigns. He won 71 percent of Hispanic voters in his re-election victory. Last June, he took executive action to halt deportations of young people brought illegally to the U.S. as children and make them eligible for work permits.
Since Obama won a second term, the administration has intensified its work on a legislative plan with immigrant-rights advocates, law-enforcement officials, and religious leaders who support a change.
A bipartisan group of senators is working on a parallel track to write a bill, and they may release an agreement as soon as next week. White House officials and Democratic leaders are negotiating over who will release their plan first, according to congressional aides.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to hold hearings on the topic next month. The goal is for legislation to reach the Senate floor by May or June.
While many Republicans in Congress have criticized creating a system to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants as an amnesty for people who entered the U.S. illegally, the party has softened its stance as Hispanic political clout has grown.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour said the nation needs to revamp immigration laws, including citizenship for undocumented people, and he urged his party to reach out to minorities or face more electoral losses.
“We’ve got to face up to some demographic issues” if Republicans hope to win the White House in 2016, he said on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
National exit polls showed that 10 percent of the electorate was Latino, compared with 9 percent four years ago and 8 percent in 2004. Hispanics constitute 16.7 percent of the total U.S. population, the largest ethnic or racial minority, according to the Census Bureau.
The former Mississippi governor, 65, said allowing many of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. to stay makes economic as well as political sense.
“If we will follow what’s good economic policy, we will recognize that we are in a global battle for capital and for labor,” Barbour said. “We need the labor, not just H-1B visas for PhDs and engineering from India, but also we need agricultural labor.”
Technology companies, from Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. to International Business Machines Corp., have backed efforts to make it easier for scientists and engineers from abroad to come to the U.S.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama will be promoting the same set of proposals that were part of his election campaign.
In his Jan. 21 inaugural address, Obama said the immigration issue is tied to economic growth.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” he said.
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