President Barack Obama put the U.S. Congress on notice Tuesday.
This is the year for lawmakers to pass an immigration reform package, and if the old partisan quagmire over the issue returns, he will force their hand.
Just before noon, the president addressed a crowd of several hundred at Del Sol High School, stating repeatedly that “now is the time” for reform.
“I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” he told the crowd of community leaders, immigrant advocates, union members, attorneys, academics and politicians, including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
The president’s speech comes a day after the “gang of eight,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, outlined their general guidelines for starting the debate on how to best fix the immigration system.
“The foundation for bipartisan action is already in place,” he said. “If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”
Julio Rodriguez, an attendee whose son goes to Del Sol High School, said he moved his family from Arizona three years ago because of the environment created after the border state passed a controversial immigration enforcement law.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time, and I hope to hear he is committed to getting immigration reform done,” Rodriguez, 38, said prior to the speech. “One of the most important steps is a pathway to citizenship.”
Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said it’s important for Obama to show leadership on the issue to get a bill through both houses of Congress.
“This is the first time we are having the debate on the merits of the law, instead of demonizing immigrants,” Medina said. “I’m glad the Republicans have stepped up, because it will take a bipartisan effort.”
Obama said the nation must gird itself for a tough debate, especially as the bill gets closer to passage.
“It’s easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” he said. “And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of ‘us’ used to be ‘them.’ We forget that. It’s really important for us to remember our history. Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you.”
The president broke his proposal into four components. First, he said, the government must continue to strengthen border security, including improving immigration courts, working more closely with local law enforcement and cracking down on transnational crime and distributors of false documents.
Second, Obama said, the government must do a better job of policing employers who hire immigrants who are ineligible for work.
“We have to make sure that every business and every worker in America is playing by the same set of rules,” he said. “We have to bring this shadow economy into the light so that everybody is held accountable — businesses for who they hire and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law. That’s common sense.”
The president’s plan suggests phasing in mandatory electronic employment verification. Caesar’s Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman, who attended the speech, said his company already uses the system, and Obama’s proposal was a “step in the right direction.”
“I’m enormously supportive of this proposal,” Loveman said. “I think all of the steps are the right ones, and it does a good job of being fair to everyone.”
While the president insisted that for “comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear that there is a pathway to citizenship,” he added that citizenship must be “earned.”
Immigrants residing in the country illegally must pass a background check, pay taxes and a penalty, wait in the same line as other immigrants and learn English, Obama said.
The Hispanic advocacy group Presente.org immediately released a statement applauding the president for rallying behind reform but criticized his continued focus on enforcement.
“President Obama sounded good, but misspoke when he said most people he is deporting were ‘criminals.’ Nobody is asking President Obama to support policies that are ‘badly broken,’” Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org said in a statement.
“No polls of Latinos say we want ‘smarter enforcement’ that wastes more taxpayer dollars to pad the incredibly bloated budget of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency,” he said.
The president said that the so-called “DREAMers,” young immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents or others and do not have a legal residency status, should be able to achieve citizenship faster if they pursue higher education or serve in the military.
Finally, Obama said, the legal immigration process must be reformed and streamlined. The president advocated for visas for foreign entrepreneurs and giving talented foreign students who study in the United States more opportunities to remain in the country when they finish their degrees.
“Intel started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and stayed here,” Obama said. “Instagram started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and stayed here.”