White House, senators launching immigration push

January 26, 2013 - 6:32 AM
Obama Liberal Agenda

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama gestures speaks during his final news conference of his first term in the East Room of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama's fledgling second term agenda so far reads like a progressive wish list. In less than a week, he's vowed to tackle climate change, expand gay rights and protect government entitlements. His administration lifted a ban on women in combat and expanded opportunities for disabled students. Proposals for stricter gun laws have already been unveiled and plans for comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, are coming soon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama will launch a campaign next week aimed at overhauling the nation's flawed immigration system and creating legal status for millions, as a bipartisan Senate group nears agreement on achieving the same goals.

The proposals from Obama and lawmakers will mark the start of what is expected to be a contentious and emotional process with deep political implications. Latino voters overwhelmingly backed Obama in the 2012 election, leaving Republicans grappling for a way to regain their standing with an increasingly powerful pool of voters.

The president will press his case for immigration changes during a trip to Las Vegas Tuesday. The Senate working group is also aiming to outline its proposals next week, according to a Senate aide.

Administration officials say Obama's second-term immigration push will be a continuation of the principles he outlined during his first four years in office but failed to act on. He is expected to revive his little-noticed 2011 immigration "blueprint," which calls for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that includes paying fines and back taxes; increased border security; mandatory penalties for businesses that employ unauthorized immigrants; and improvements to the legal immigration system, including giving green cards to high-skilled workers and lifting caps on legal immigration for the immediate family members of U.S. citizens.

"What has been absent in the time since he put those principles forward has been a willingness by Republicans, generally speaking, to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "What he hopes is that that dynamic has changed."

The political dynamic does appear to have shifted following the November election. Despite making little progress on immigration in his first term, Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, in part because of the conservative positions on immigration that Republican nominee Mitt Romney staked out during the GOP primary. Latino voters accounted for 10 percent of the electorate in November.

The president met privately Friday morning with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss his next steps on immigration. Among those in the meeting was Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., who said Obama told lawmakers "immigration reform is his number one legislative priority."

That could bump back the president's efforts to seek legislation enacting stricter gun laws, another issue he has vowed to make a top second term priority.

The Senate immigration group is also pressing for quick action, aiming to draft a bill by March and pass legislation in their chamber by August, said the aide, who requested anonymity in order to discuss private deliberations. The Republican-controlled House would also need to pass the legislation before it went to the White House for the president's signature.

Senate lawmakers working on the immigration effort include Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey; and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, according to Senate aides.

Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah have also been involved. It's not clear whether all those involved will sign on to the principles the group hopes to roll out next week.

Those principles are expected to include a process toward legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants already in the country; border security; verification measures for employers hiring workers and ways for more temporary workers to be admitted into the country.

It's unclear whether the group will back the pathway to full citizenship that the president is seeking. Schumer and Graham have previously supported requiring illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law, perform community service, pay fines and back taxes, pass background checks and learn English before going to the back of the line of immigrants already in the system in order to legalize their immigration status.

Several of the senators negotiating the immigration principles are veterans of the failed comprehensive immigration reform effort under then-President George W. Bush. That process collapsed in 2007 when it came up well-short of the needed votes in the Senate, a bitter outcome for Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democrats' leader on the legislation.

Some Republicans still lament that result as a missed opportunity for the party that could have set the GOP on a different path to reach more Latino voters.

Rubio is a relative newcomer to Senate negotiations on the issue, but he's seen as a rising star in his party and a potential 2016 presidential candidate. As a charismatic young Hispanic leader his proposals on immigration have attracted wide notice in recent weeks. And as a conservative favorite, unlike McCain or Graham, his stamp of approval could be critical to drawing in other conservative lawmakers.

A Republican aide said that Rubio has made clear in his interactions with the Senate group that he couldn't sign on to proposals that deviated from the principles he himself has been laying out in recent media interviews, including border security first, a guest-worker program, more visas for high-tech workers and enforcement in the workplace.

As for the illegal immigrants already in the country, Rubio would have them pay a fine and back taxes, show they have not committed crimes, prove they've been in the country for some time and speak some English and apply for permanent residency. Ultimately citizenship too could be in reach but only after a process that doesn't nudge aside immigrants already in line, and Rubio hasn't provided details on how long it all might take.

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Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo contributed to this report.