Obama tells Telemundo he hopes for immigration overhaul within 6 months

On the heels of his remarks in Las Vegas on immigration reform, President Barack Obama granted an interview to “Noticiero Telemundo” news anchor José Díaz-Balart at the White House.

Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart (JDB)

JDB:  Mr. President, yesterday you said that if Congress doesn’t act fast enough on immigration you’ll send a bill.  What exactly is fast enough?

President Obama:

Well, the senators themselves have said that they’d like to see legislation done by March.  That they’d like to be able to present that– not only to– their fellow members of the Senate but also the American people.  And– yeah, I think that’s a reasonable timeline.

The– the important point here is that we’ve been working on this for a long time.  We know what the issues are.  I’ve got a bill drafted.  We’ve got language.  We know what’s needed when it comes to border security.  We know what’s needed when it comes to– dealing with employers who may– unlawfully hire– undocumented workers.  We know what a pathway to citizen– ship looks like and– and what the criteria should be.

And so really the issue here is not so much technical as it is political.  It’s a matter of– Republicans and Democrats coming together– and finding a meeting of the minds and then making the case.  And– you know, I’m– I’m hopeful that this can get done and– and I don’t think that– it should take– many, many months.  I think this is something that we should be able to get done certainly this year, and I’d like to see if we can get it done– sooner, in the first half of the year if possible.

JDB:

Yesterday in your Las Vegas rally I met Leticia.  She is an undocumented mother of three.  And she and so many other people– ask me to ask you, “Why can’t you do for them what you did for the dreamers?”

PO:

Well, I think as– as you know– and I’ve said this before to you, Jose, but– I’m not a king.  You know, my job as the head of the executive branch ultimately is to carry out the law.  And– you know, when it comes to enforcement of our immigration laws– we’ve got some discretion.  We can prioritize– what we do.  But we can’t simply ignore the law.

When it comes to the dreamers– we were able to identify that group and– and say, “These folks are generally not a risk.  They’re not involved in crime.  They’re going to school.  They’re doin’ the right things.  They’ve– effectively– been raised here and– think of themselves as Americans.  And so let’s prioritize our enforcement resources.”

But to sort through all the possible cases– of everybody who might have a sympathetic story to tell is very difficult to do.  This is why we need comprehensive immigration reform.  To make sure that once and for all– in a way that is– you know, ratified by Congress, we can say that there is a pathway to citizenship for people who are staying out of trouble, who are trying to do the right thing, who’ve put down roots here.

You know, but it’s gonna be tough.  They’re gonna have to pay a fine.  They’re gonna have to pay back taxes.  Background checks.  You know, learning English.  They’ve gotta– they’re gonna have to– you know, work hard to– to achieve– this incredible privilege of being a U.S. citizen and–

JDB:

Even if it takes a long time?

PO:

And it may take some time.  But the point is there should be certainty for them that if they do these things they can achieve it.  What we don’t want is I think a vague promise that somewhere down the line maybe sort of kinda you may be able to– achieve citizenship.  We wanna give people clarity about how they can move forward.

JDB:

Mr. President, will the record number of deportations continue, even if– there is some serious progress on– immigration reform on Capitol Hill?  Will these deportations continue the same level that we’ve seen under your administration?

PO:

Well, look– I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again.  My job is to carry out the law.  And– so Congress gives us a whole bunch of resources.  They give us– an order that we’ve gotta go out there and enforce the laws that are on the books.  And we’ve done so.  And we’ve done so effectively.

And I make no apologies for us enforcing the law as well as the work that we’ve done to strengthen border security.  As a consequence we’ve actually seen an 80% drop in– illegal crossings.  And what we’ve seen is is that the people who are being deported, the vast majority of them now are criminals.  That did not used to be the case.  But there’re still obviously gonna be people who get caught up in the system–

JDB:

And lots of ‘em.

PO:

–that– that’s heart-breaking.  But that’s why we’re– pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.  If– if I– obviously if– if– this was an issue that I could do unilaterally I would have done it a long time ago.  And we’ve talked about this before.  The way our system works is Congress has to pass legislation.  I then get an opportunity to sign it and implement it.  And that’s what we’re gonna be fighting for in the next several months.

JDB:

So the deportations will continue as have been happening?

PO:

What– what I’m saying is that that may be a moot question, because I anticipate us being able to get comprehensive immigration reform done.

JDB:

I checked today– Marco Rubio’s office and other Republicans working on immigration.  They say they have not had any communication with you.  Not meetings.  And they’d like that to show bipartisan efforts– that are serious.  Is that something you see– in the future?

PO:

Look– I am happy to meet with anybody, anytime, anywhere– to make sure that this thing happens.  You know, the truth is oftentimes what happens is– is– members of Congress prefer meeting among themselves to build trust– between Democrats and Republicans there.  They want assistance from us but sometimes they want it through back channels.  And, you know, if they want a public meeting, if they want– private meetings, anything that– is necessary to move this thing forward, we’re happy to do.

JDB:

Great.  In the immigration reform principles that you released yesterday– it says that undocumented or, quote, “people with provisional legal status will not be eligible for Obamacare.”  What exactly does that mean?

PO:

Well, what it means is– this has always been the case.  When we talk about– providing people with a provisional legal status, assuming we get comprehensive immigration reform done– then, you know, they would not be entitled to the same subsidies– to obtain healthcare, for example, that a U.S. citizen– is able to obtain.

That doesn’t mean that they can’t get healthcare, for example.  It means, for example, if they wanna pay out of pocket they could still join an exchange.  They could still participate.  They would have the same ability to obtain health insurance as anybody else, but, you know, the way we’ve designed it, very low income persons are able to get tax credits in order to help to purchase insurance.  That is something that– we do for citizens.  That’s not something that we do for non-citizens.

But I– I think it’s fair to say– Jose that– it– you know, if you asked– a person right now who’s living in the shadows– “Are you willing to take a deal where you can get a driver’s license, you can get a– work permit, you’re legal, but right now you’re not– able to– benefit from a subsidy, even though you are able to live your life and– and– get health insurance,” I– I think they’d be happy to take that deal.

JDB:

A lot of questions that we’re getting– are about people who have recently been deported– and that would probably qualify– in the future under immigration reform.  A lot of questions are, “My husband– was deported.  What happens to him?”  Is there a chance for the people that in this period are deported to come back?

PO:

Well, I think– there’re gonna be a lot of details that have to be worked out.  It is true of any law– that– you know– when I passed– healthcare reform there were probably some people who six months earlier could have really used– some help.  And they didn’t get it until the law got passed.

And so– you know– there may be ways in which the Senate and the House, as they pass this legislation– decide that– you know, they take certain groups that are particularly sympathetic and they try to deal with them in some– in some fashion.  I’ll let them work on the details of that.

I think the most important thing that I’m thinking about is– the future.  And, you know, families, children, people who are workin’ hard and living their lives.  I wanna make sure that– the story they tell– 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 20 years from now when they talk to their– their own children and grandchildren is– is that this was a time when America reaffirmed we are a nation of immigrants.  We reaffirmed that this will make us a stronger nation, not a weaker nation.

JDB:

There are so many people that when they hear– you say that this is the time for immigration reform and they– they think– of many– past efforts that have failed.  And they say, “Mr. President, how can you be so sure?”

PO:

Well, I– I can’t be 100% sure.  You know, what I do know is is that– in the past we’ve seen bipartisan support for this.  When I first came into the Senate in 2006 we had 23 Republicans who supported this.  In 2007 that went down– significantly.  And then for the last couple of years it’s been zero.

Now we’re building back up.  And we’ve seen– you know, four Republican senators who’ve stepped up.  And I’m– I– I’ve publicly praised them for– engaging with their Democratic counterparts on this issue.  That is a good sign.  It’s a good step.  And you’re seeing some Republican commentators saying this is important.

And, you know, you’ll remember– one of the things I used to tell immigrant– rights advocates– was the way to change Congress is to show the power of the ballot.  And the Latino community turned out in record numbers and it’s made a difference.  And– and because of that I think we have a better chance now than we’ve had at any time since I’ve been president.

Now does that mean guar– that somethin’ couldn’t go off the rails?  That the pressure of those who are opposed to comprehensive immigration reform might not be able to block it?  Of course that’s still a possibility.  But the one thing I can guarantee is my effort.  I can guarantee that I will put everything I’ve got behind it.  We’re putting our shoulder to the wheel.  I’ll be talking about it.  We’ve now got a majority of Americans who are supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.   And, you know, I will do everything I can to make sure that we align public opinion with– Congressional votes so that I can actually get a bill on that– on that desk to sign.

JDB:

Yesterday Secretary Clinton– referring to Cuba said it’s a dictatorship that must change in the near future.  That policy of your administration, of no normalization until there’s democratization, do you see that changing in your second term with a new secretary of State?

PO:

Well, you know– we have tried to– make overtures that were good for the Cuban people.  You know, loosening up remittances from family members.  Loosening up travel for family members back to Cuba.  Because our view has been that that empowers civil society inside of Cuba.  That empowers people– who, you know, wanna have a voice in Cuba.

But what we’ve also said is– is that– in order for us to see an actual normalization– of the relations between– the United States and Cuba, that we have to do something about all those political prisoners– who are still there.  We’ve gotta do something about just basic freedoms of– of the press and– and assembly.

We don’t expect every country to operate the way we do.  And obviously we do business with a lot of countries around the world– that don’t meet our standards in terms of– you know, constitutions and rights.  But we do think it’s important for us to continue to push to make sure that– the Cuban people themselves– have a voice in their lives.

And– my hope is is that– slowly but surely– the Cuban leadership begins to recognize, “It’s time to join the 21st century.”  You know, it– it– I mean it– it– it’s– it’s one thing to have cars from the 1950s.  It’s another thing when (CHUCKLE) your whole political ideology– is coming out– is– is 50 years or s– or 60 years old and– and it’s been proven not to work.

And– I think that we can have– progress over the next four years.  I’m happy to engage it.  I think it would be good for the Cuban people.  But– but it’s– it’s gotta be a two way street.  It can’t just be– that we look away completely from– you know, the very sad circumstances that a lot of Cubans– still live in.

JDB:

Back– back home– specifically in your hometown of Chicago, yesterday 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot dead in a park.  She was here in Washington to– take part in your inaugural.  Chicago has one of the strictest gun control laws, certainly in the state and across the country.  Doesn’t this in a way give credence to the NRA’s point that more laws don’t necessarily equate to less gun violence?

PO:

Well, the problem is is that– a huge proportion of those guns come in from outside Chicago.  I mean what is absolutely true is that– if you are just– creating a– bunch of pockets of gun laws without having sort of– a unified, integrated system, for example of background checks, then, you know, it’s gonna be a lot harder for– an individual community, a single community, to protect itself from this kind of gun violence.  That’s precisely why it– we think it’s important for Congress to act.

And– and, remember, that what we’re looking for here has nothing to do with taking away people’s guns.  Nobody’s talking about– somehow violating the Second Amendment.  We’re talking about some commonsense things that– for example, I– I met with law enforcement, police chiefs, sheriffs, from–

JDB:

Gabby Giffords today.

PO:

Gabby Giffords.  Small communities, rural communities, big cities.  And there’re some things that they know would make sense.  That’s what we’ve proposed.  If you have a universal background system so that we can make sure that– people who have violent– intentions and delusions can’t get– a weapon.

If we make sure that– people can’t fire off 100 rounds in a minute– because of these– magazine clips.  If we ensure that– we’re cracking down on gun traffickers.  Those are the kinds of things that the vast majority of the American pe– public agrees with, but also– a lot of– gun owners agree with.

And what we’d like to see is– is for us to make progress, because anybody who– you know, went up to Newtown and met those parents and– and saw what they were goin’ through– I think recognizes that if– if– if we’re not doing something to try to have an impact on that, to lessen it, even if it’s not perfect, even if it doesn’t work every time, even if it– doesn’t save every– person who’s– a potential victim of gun violence but we– we save a few, you know, if we don’t do that, shame on us.

The interview aired today on “Noticiero Telemundo“. An extended version will be broadcast on the network’s Sunday public affairs show “Enfoque con Jose Diaz-Balart” this Sunday, February 3rd (11:55 am ET, 10:55 am CT, 12:30 pm PT).

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