Obama’s 7 State of the Union talking points. No. 4: Immigration

President Obama will deliver his sixth State of the Union address on Tuesday. The Fix is previewing Obama’s major themes and challenges in the speech, focusing on one issue a day leading up to the address. Today’s talking point is immigration. Click here for talking point #3 on early childhood education. Click here for talking point #2 on saving the planet. And click here for talking point #1 on defending Obamacare.

A year after calling on Congress to send him a comprehensive immigration reform bill, President Obama heads into his 2014 speech halfway to his goal.

Last June, after months of deliberations, the Senate approved a bipartisan plan that featured a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Now comes the hard part. House Republican leaders have rejected the Senate plan, announcing they will instead pursue a piecemeal approach to legislation, including bills to increase border security and add new foreign worker visas.

On the question of citizenship, however, GOP leaders have been less clear, signaling in recent weeks they might be open to discussing ways to legalize the undocumented population but not providing a “special path” to citizenship in the way the Senate plan does. Immigration advocacy groups, congressional Democrats and the White House have demanded that such a path be included in any final agreement.

Enter Obama.

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White House officials view immigration as the president's best chance to pass a major piece of domestic legislation in his final three years in office, largely because some GOP leaders believe their party must broaden its appeal to Latinos and Asian Americans before the 2016 election. Obama won reelection in 2012 with the support of more than 70 percent of those voters.

At the same time, the president is facing mounting pressure from immigration advocates to halt deportations, which are on pace to soon top the 2 million mark during his tenure — more than the George W. Bush administration deported in eight years.

Five House Democrats from Obama’s home state of Illinois, led by Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, announced they will each bring an immigration advocate as their guest to the president’s State of the Union speech in the House chamber Tuesday. The AFL-CIO, which has supported Obama’s immigration push, called on him to use the speech to announce administrative action “to ease the deportation crisis that is wrecking workforces, families and communities.”

But White House aides and Democratic allies said that Obama is mindful of the challenge House Speaker John Boehner faces in coalescing his conference around any sort of immigration plan, and that he is unlikely to harshly criticize House Republicans or make unilateral demands. Instead, the president is expected to highlight the economic benefits of immigration reform, tying it to his broader goal of boosting the middle class and framing the debate in a light that might appeal to Capitol Hill conservatives.

The president struck a similar tone during last year’s State of the Union speech, when he devoted about 300 words in a 6,900-word address to immigration reform. He praised bipartisan talks in both chambers of Congress and implored them to send him a bill.

“I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it,” Obama said in 2013. “Let’s get it done.”

White House aides caution that they will not hesitate to use stronger tactics if necessary to keep pressure on the House — such as sending the president on the road for speeches to rally support or having Obama grant interviews to Spanish-language media.

For now, though, the administration is adopting a wait-and-see approach to the House’s plans.

“It’s definitely an awkward moment because the State of the Union is supposed to be about leading, and the president has made it pretty clear and articulated a commitment to pushing forward aggressively on a ‘year of action,’ ” said Marshall Fitz, immigration policy director at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “He wants to be in a leadership posture on lot of issues important to him and his legacy. But I think he would agree this as important issue as any, and yet for him to be too far out there in this speech and really kind of either pushing or prodding Republicans to move forward or drawing lines in the sand is probably an ineffective way of getting to the goal.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
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