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Obama: 'Now's the time' for immigration reform

President Obama made an aggressive case for an immediate overhaul of U.S.
President Obama delivers a speech on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Jan. 29, 2013. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/AP)
President Obama delivers a speech on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Jan. 29, 2013.

President Obama made an aggressive case for an immediate overhaul of U.S. immigration laws during a speech in Las Vegas Tuesday, giving momentum to the Senate's new bipartisan push towards reform.

The president declared “now’s the time” for comprehensive changes to an immigration system he called "broken", and which he said has approximately 11 million undocumented workers “living in the shadows.” He argued getting these immigrants on the right side of the law strengthens our economy.

Speaking in a city that in recent years has been transformed by an influx of Hispanic immigrants, Obama outlined four broad principles he wants in a proposal: Strengthening security at U.S. borders, cracking down on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants; streamlining the earned path to citizenship for millions; and improvements in the existing legal immigration system.

"Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I've proposed and campaigned on for the last few years," said Obama. "At this moment, it looks like there's a genuine desire to get this done soon. And that's very encouraging."

But, if lawmakers gets “bogged down in an endless debate" and don't act in a timely fashion, Obama threatened to send his own bill to Congress and "insist that they vote on it right away."

"The closer we get, the more emotional debate this is going to become," said Obama, encouraging lawmakers to stay the course, even on this debate which traditionally packs an emotional punch. "It's important for us to realize that the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place."

In reaction to the president's speech, Speaker John Boehner warned a fast hard shift to the left on immigration ideas puts the bill on shaky ground in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

“There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. "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.”

While hailing the Senate’s bipartisan effort—no common occurrence these days—Obama appears to be at odds with the Senate over the specific approach to border security. Similar to the Gang of Eight in the Senate, the president’s preferred method of preventing more illegal immigration and tracking those who have overstayed their visas involves improving infrastructure at processing points and taking advantage of private and public partnerships to encourage technological advances in the way the government processes foreigners to the country. The Senate’s plan goes one step further, saying increased security measures on the border must go into effect before immigrants can even apply for a green card. A provision in the Senate bill also called for the creation of a border state commission to monitor developments.

Unlike the Senate plan, Obama also figures marriage equality into the equation by giving U.S. citizens and permanent residents the ability to sponsor same-sex partners for visas.

"The president has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Both sides suggested an “earned” path to legal status for undocumented workers could include fines, back taxes and background checks. After that, then they could get into the back of the immigration line behind others who have already been waiting to become citizens.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised Obama’s “perfect” handling on the delicate situation. “He is using the bully pulpit to focus the nation's attention on the urgency of immigration reform and set goals for action on this issue,” said Schumer, who was one of the leaders to submit the immigration proposal. “But he is also giving lawmakers on both sides the space to form a bipartisan coalition."