President Obama threw his weight behind the Senate's immigration bill in a White House speech Tuesday, declaring it the best "vehicle" for reform on political and policy grounds alike.
"To truly deal with this issue, Congress needs to act," Obama said. "And that moment is now."
The president's remarks come at a tense moment for immigration reform in Congress. The Senate is opening debate on the bipartisan "Gang of Eight's" bill with broad support from labor unions, business groups, religious leaders, and Latino groups. Supporters are confident it will reach the 60 votes needed to pass. But Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the bill's most conservative co-sponsor, is concerned it will be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and is demanding changes to its border security provisions. Democrats are warning that some of the ideas floating around the Senate—especially a proposed amendment by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas that adds new obstacles to eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants—would derail the bill.
Keenly aware of the debate, Obama called the existing Senate bill the "biggest commitment to border security in our nation's history." He listed a number of its provisions on that front, including billions of dollars for border surveillance and enforcement, higher criminal penalties for smugglers, and a new requirement that employers check their workers' legal status before hiring.
He also had some stern words for House Republicans, who supporters of reform fear are returning to their old hardline ways. Last week, Republicans overwhelmingly voted for an amendment opposing Obama's decision to stay deportations on young undocumented immigrants, and two key House committee chairs on immigration introduced a hardline enforcement-only bill.
Obama, who was introduced by an aspiring engineer who arrived in America illegally from Nigeria as a child, decried "extreme steps like stripping protection to DREAMers my office has already provided" which he said would relegate them to the same enforcement priority as "violent criminals."
The good news for Obama is that House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio publicly supports passing immigration reform this year. The bad news is nobody is sure what kind of immigration reform he means—he's extremely cagey about issues like a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a centerpiece of the Senate proposal, for example. It's still not clear he'd be willing to override his conservative members to pass a final bill that relies mostly on Democratic votes. The most promising way forward may be a bipartisan group of House members working on a comprehensive bill, but they've been mired by internal divisions over how newly legalized immigrants would obtain health care, prompting one member, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, to quit.
For the most part, Obama has been content to watch the debate from the sidelines in order to give Republicans political cover to negotiate a bill without tying themselves to the administration. The White House does have an immigration plan of its own that shares the same general structure as the "Gang of Eight," which officials say they intend to introduce as a bill only if talks break down in Congress.