A day after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators offered a plan to fix the country’s immigration system, President Obama offered up his own — and warned lawmakers to get serious about the issue or deal with him.
“If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away,” he told a crowd in Las Vegas.
His speech was short on details and instead loaded with prepared but enthusiastic remarks about the need for reform. But a fact sheet released by the White House outlined in detail his key points, which include an emphasis on securing the border. The other pillars include cracking down on hiring unauthorized workers, a path to earned citizenship and improving the legal immigration system.
Dan Kowalski, an Austin-based immigration attorney and editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, said that the president said encouraging things, but that the details of the plan are what should be considered.
"The fact sheet is more important than the speech, and I agree with pretty much everything in the fact sheet except that I would reverse the order of the four components,” he said. “I think he has it backwards, and the White House did it on purpose for political reasons.”
The border security component includes streamlining the process of removing people who overstay their visas or are deemed a national threat, improving the country’s immigration courts and a continued emphasis on more boots on the ground on the country’s southern border.
Kowalski said that if the last component — streamlining legal immigration — was instead the top priority, everything else would be easier to do. That component includes automatically attaching a green card to graduates who earn degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics; eliminating backlogs for applicants of family-sponsored visas; raising the caps on those visas from 7 percent to 15 percent; and expanding those benefits to same-sex couples.
He added that Tuesday’s announcement, coupled with the senators’ plan on Monday, shows that Republicans are aware they need to act.
“The Tea Partiers, the hardliners in the House, they are not going to carry the day. They can’t,” he said. “If the have any hope of attracting Latino voters to the GOP, that’s just a fact. And they know it.”
Some Republicans, however, held firm in their unwillingness to come to the table. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, issued a harsh rebuke of the administration’s proposal.
“Our immigration laws aren’t broken, they just aren’t enforced. According to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the Border Patrol only has control of 44% of the southern border. That’s a failing grade,” he said in a statement.
“We’ve been down this road before with politicians promising to enforce the law in return for amnesty. And then after the amnesty, they fail to make good on the enforcement promises. The American people should not be fooled.”
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who has expressed support for a guest-worker program but has pushed back against what he calls amnesty, said Tuesday’s announcement was more of the same rhetoric from Democrats.
“It’s past time for properly securing our borders and reforming our immigration policy, but citizenship should not be a consolation prize for circumventing our laws,” he said in a statement. “Today, the president announced his plan for resolving our immigration problem. Unfortunately, it amounts to amnesty bundled up in a new box with a fresh bow.”
Others see the bipartisan effort to move forward as proof that a proposal will go before lawmakers soon.
“We applaud the president's leadership and are glad he is working toward delivering on his campaign promise,” said U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Edinburg, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “Immigration reform started as a bipartisan issue, and with President Obama's leadership and positive reception of the Senate principles, we are confident that it will pass as a bipartisan bill.”
Some proponents of reform, however, said the president did not go far enough, insisting he can back up his words with an immediate end to deportations, which have hit record levels during his time in Washington.
“The President should immediately follow his speech with an order suspending deportations as the first step to open a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” Pablo Alvarado, the director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement. “Demonstrating that all 11 million undocumented people deserve the same relief given to the DREAMers will set the debate in the right direction and remove divisions between 'us and them.' Ceasing the deportation of those he states he wishes to legalize is what will give the President's speech meaning.”
Kowalski said there is a fair basis for the network’s assessment given the fact that the Obama administration removed more than 400,000 immigrants last year.
"He ramped up enforcement on purpose to give him street cred with the Republicans so he can say, ‘Look, I’ve done the hard thing. I’ve been the bad cop. And now we all have to be good cops,’” he said. “So he knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it on purpose, and he’s not going to apologize for it.”