LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama proposed to rewrite U.S. immigration laws Tuesday, echoing a bipartisan group of influential U.S. senators in a one-two step that signaled a changing political landscape and the best chance in a generation to change the way the nation treats those who have arrived here illegally.
“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 diverse audience at a Las Vegas high school. “Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution. … At this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon, and that’s very encouraging.”
Many Republican leaders now support an immigration overhaul — even a pathway to citizenship — after a bruising election in which Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, though a battle remains in Congress.
The Senate will hold its first hearing Feb. 13. Legislation could be introduced by early March. If Congress is unable to move a timely proposal, Obama said, he will send his own and ask for a vote. Some Republicans and Democrats agree on broad outlines of legislation that would allow the estimated 11 million who reside in the United States illegally to become citizens.
The president’s package is similar to — but more aggressive than — a plan the eight senators unveiled Monday.
The senators are Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.
The biggest disagreement is over what the nation’s illegal immigrants would need to do to become citizens. “How long until they can become legal permanent residents? How long until they can be on a concrete path to citizenship?” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “That is where there is a difference of opinion.”
Under Obama’s plan, those granted work permits likely would be able to apply soon for their green cards and then start the process of citizenship, according to Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. The White House did not specify how soon.
Under the Senate plan, it could take a decade or more before immigrants could get in line for citizenship.
“I just hope it’s as soon as possible,” said Rafael Marquez, a 40-year-old farmworker from Fresno, Calif.
“We’ve lived so many years suffering,” the Mexico native said in a telephone interview. “So many years here being pursued by the law as if we were delinquents. It’s time for the immigration reform.”
Another potential obstacle: Obama would allow citizens and residents to seek a visa for their same-sex partner — a provision some Republicans oppose.
Both proposals would create a nationwide system to verify the legal status of workers, punish businesses that hire illegal immigrants, allow more highly skilled immigrants to stay in the country and increase border security.
Obama, who did not push hard for an immigration overhaul in his first term, sounded hopeful Tuesday that the country and its politics are ready to embrace a sweeping change. Many Republicans signaled a willingness to consider a pathway to citizenship after Obama took 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012.
He drew the biggest applause from his invited audience when he spoke about illegal immigrants: “A lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them.”
“Si se puede!” they chanted, roughly, “Yes, it can be done.”
Another potential boon to the prospects is the support of organized labor. Several union leaders including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka attended Obama’s speech, signaling their support. In past efforts to pass reforms, labor unions have been wary of comprehensive legislation that called for large expansions of guest-worker programs, which they called abuses of the programs and unfair competition to American laborers.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it would be foolhardy to calculate the immigration proposals put forth by Obama and senators without seeing the plans in legislative form.
“I’ve got a good indication that there’s a bipartisan desire to go forward,” he said. However, McConnell said, “I think predicting how one is going to vote on this package before it gets out of committee is something I’m not prepared to do.”
And there remains a question of how the House of Representatives will act.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has said he wants to tackle the issue this year, warned Obama to not get too partisan.
“There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “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.”
Memories of the amnesty legislation of 1986 continue to haunt many Republicans. President Ronald Reagan signed that bill into law amid many of the same promises to grant legal status to illegal immigrants, clamp down on unscrupulous employers and finally secure the border. Instead, the border remained porous, companies continued to hire illegal immigrants, and illegal immigration exploded.
“The president has demonstrated he will only enforce the laws that he likes,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. “Promises of future law enforcement made under the 1986 Amnesty Act were not adequately kept by President Reagan. Why, then, would Americans accept the promise of this president?”
In 2007, a Senate plan that included a pathway to citizenship died despite backing from President George W. Bush and other Republicans. In 2010, negotiations broke down in the Senate before a plan could be completed as many states began tackling illegal immigration themselves.
“The last time Congress tackled major immigration reform, it took nearly 10 years from the time the first bill was introduced in 1981 until legislation was finally enacted in 1990,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law expert at Cornell University. “Moreover, Congress operated more efficiently then. I doubt immigration reform legislation will be enacted this year, but I hope I am wrong.”