U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his address on immigration reform at Del Sol High School on January 29, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Obama commended Congress for their bipartisanship efforts in fixing illegal immigration policies. (Photo by John Gurzinski/Getty Images)

Obama to hold Congress to March deadline on immigration reform

President Obama set an ambitious agenda at last night’s State of the Union address, but according to the White House that’s not going to stop him from pushing immigration reform. Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz said during a conference call today that President Obama has will hold Congress to an early March deadline on immigration reform.

“He is creating the space for a bipartisan process but has also made it very clear that if the process gets bogged down he is going to introduce his own bill,” Munoz said “They have talked about producing a bill in early March and the President expects to hold them to that.”

On immigration reform, President Obama said at the State of the Union speech last night, “If you send me a bill, I will sign it.” The president is expected to meet with four Senate Democrats on immigration reform late Wednesday to give him an update on the progress made by the bipartisan group. The meeting will include all four Democrats in the immigration talks Gang of Eight, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). President Obama has praised the bipartisan effort but has stayed away from getting too involved. According to Munoz, the president wants to respect the wishes of the members of Congress currently focused on the bill.

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“The members asked the president to leave them room to negotiate a strong bipartisan bill,” Munoz said. “The fact that there is bipartisanship reemerging on the immigration issue feels like evidence that it is possible…for policy makers to work together and accomplish big goals for the country.”

But with just a few weeks left until March, Obama’s ambitious State of the Union speech begged the question of whether a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform plan would be possible in such a short time frame. The overwhelming answer from immigration policy experts is yes. According to Laura Vazquez, Legislative Analyst at the National Council of La Raza, the March deadline means having a bill ready for introduction and ready to move through the committee process.

Angelica Salas, Executive Director of  the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, says that having legislation written and on the floor of the Senate and the House is entirely possible by March.

“You have two years for a legislative season. The hope is that in year one of the legislative year, 2013 to 2014, that you actually get it out and have it deliberated and voted on by the end of the summer,” she says.

Marielena Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center says that because the Gang of Eight has already agreed on some of the main principles of reform, moving forward by March is a reasonable deadline.

“Since the election, all the different players- the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives- have been working on legislation,” Hincapié says.

At today’s Senate immigration hearing, Vazquez said leaders were optimistic about the future of the immigration legislation.

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“What we’ve heard today is that they are working very well together, they are very upbeat,” she says. “The process is working very well and they are moving along their timeline.”

Still Lynn Tramonte of America’s Voice says that there are essential questions in immigration reform legislation that have yet to be answered and can potentially hold up the entire process.

“The hard part has always been negotiating in a bipartisan situation between leaders and making decisions on how far to go on certain components,” Tramonte says. “We know what questions are there: what does the path to citizenship look like, who qualifies, how do you revise the legal immigration system, how do we balance a need for immigrant workers with protecting job opportunities. That’s what has been harder sometimes on a policy front.”

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Should Congress fail to meet the March deadline, there is widespread agreement President Obama will take matters into his own hands. Munoz hinted at the possibility of intervention by the White House arguing that the President’s State of the Union speech  “made very clear his sense of urgency.” According to Hincapié, the next step would be for the White House to release its own legislation that would be taken up by Senator Leahy’s committee.

For Salas, the deadline is not only feasible but necessary. She believes that the president hold Congress to a deadline is imperative because if we don’t then they can dilly dally and you will lose the legislative calendar year,” she says. “Groups around the country are prepared to raise the heat so that it actually happens. We are tired of the promises.”

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