President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Obama: No more debate, pass immigration reform now

Speaking to a packed audience at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, a state where over 70 percent of Latinos gave him their support in November, President Barack Obama said that now there is consensus among politicians from both sides on the need for immigration reform, it’s time to get it done.

“Action must follow – we can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate,” said the president, who later said that now that there is a bipartisan foundation, if Congress does not put forth a bill, “I will send my bill so they vote on it right away,” Obama said.

Saying that immigration was in this country’s “bones” and the differences regarding reform seem to be dwindling, Obama said “a broad consensus is emerging.”

The president’s speech did not get into specifics, and he seemed to purposely avoid presenting his plan as an alternative to the Senate bipartisan proposal, instead praising what the senators proposed and saying they were similar. Obama said the main elements of the legislation should be enforcement, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers and updating the legal immigration system to allow more skilled workers and students to remain and work in the U.S.

Where the plans most differ, however, is that the Senate plan makes the gradual path to legalization and citizenship contingent on securing the  nation’s borders, something Obama does not do. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the Senators who drafted the proposal, criticized Obama’s speech today for “his unwillingness to accept significant enforcement triggers before current undocumented immigrants can apply for a green card. Without such triggers in place,” said Rubio, “we will be back in just a few years dealing with millions of new undocumented people in our country.”

The Obama plan also allows same-sex couples the same rights to sponsor a partner for citizenship, as is the case with heterosexual couples.

Despite the differences in plans and the fact that more partisan differences will emerge in the coming days, Latino leaders in Nevada for the announcement today said recent developments bode well for those who advocate for reform.

“If you think that just 4 months back there was talk of self-deportation and Arizona being a model for the country — it’s incredible,” says Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC).

“I’m really pleased the debate on immigration reform is on the merits of the plan, instead of demonizing immigrants like in the past,” says Eliseo Medina, Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

And in a clear indication that Republicans are trying to steer clear of rhetoric perceived as anti-Latino, the center-right  Hispanic Leadership Network, issued a memo called “Suggested Messaging Dos and Don’ts of Immigration Reform” for Republican legislators yesterday. “Don’t use phrases like ‘send them all back,’ ‘electric fence,’ build a wall along the entire border,'” says the memo, also asking legislators to avoid the term ‘anchor baby’ or ‘amnesty.’

Jennifer Korn, the Hispanic Leadership Network‘s Executive Director, says “it’s unfair to paint the whole Republican party as anti-immigration because a handful of conservatives used harsh language  in the past.” She says she believes there is support for reform among Republican legislators in the House and Senate.

“We are in a different environment post election, and conservatives are more willing to come out publicly to support immigration reform,” she says.

So now that Senate leaders and the President are on board about passing legislation by the summer, the issue turns to the House, traditionally less supportive of reform. Some House leaders like Florida Republican Mario Díaz-Balart are taking the lead on reform. “If you have a car that is not running, you fix it — and that’s what we need to do with immigration reform,” said Díaz-Balart on MSNBC today.

Not everyone, however, is on board.  “There are people in the House who would not mind being the ones to torpedo an immigration bill,” says Latino Decisions political scientist Sylvia Manzano.  They are, however, getting pressure from party leaders, says Manzano, who adds that after the election, Republicans do not want to continue being perceived as coming into immigration reform “kicking and screaming.”

Former Commerce Secretary and Juntos con Romney co-chair Carlos Gutierrez criticized the president for presenting a “competing” plan to the Senate’s proposal and “drawing lines in the sand.”  Gutierrez, who formed Republican for Immigration Reform, does support reform.

Partisan differences aside, reform advocates say what is crucial is to get consensus on the need to pass legislation, and they say President Obama needs to apply pressure to seal the deal.

“If we are going to get reform it’s not going to be the White House in one lane and Congress on the other lane; it’s extremely important that Obama works with Congress and sits down with leadership and continues to help broker a deal,” says NILC’s Marielena Hincapié.  “It’s also important to continue making the case with the American people,” she says.

“Immigration reform isn’t a Latino issue, it’s an American issue,” says Maria Teresa Kumar, from Voto Latino.

“We are confident that it will pass as a bipartisan bill,” stated Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rubén Hinojosa.

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