Immigration advocates close to the White House have vowed to pressure Obama if he agrees to what they consider unreasonable preconditions to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Conservatives are either insisting on strict contingencies or refusing to back the idea of citizenship.
“The world now thinks that this is inevitable,” said one person with knowledge of the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is far from inevitable. There’s a million land mines in the way.”
Obama has welcomed the Senate plan. But in a speech this week, he called for a path to citizenship “from the outset,” and in subsequent interviews, he appeared to draw a clear line on the issue.
“What we don’t want to do is create some kind of vague prospect in the future that somehow comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship will happen, you know, mañana,” Obama told Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas in a White House interview aired late Wednesday, using the Spanish word for “tomorrow.”
Obama is under pressure to deliver on citizenship from supporters who believe they made his reelection possible. Moreover, many Hispanic leaders think that in his first term, Obama broke a promise to pursue an immigration overhaul. Some advocates remain wary that the president and Democratic lawmakers might be tempted to bargain away their best hope for a clear citizenship path in their quest for a bipartisan deal.
The Senate group stoked that wariness with one of the provisions in its citizenship plan: the creation of a special commission, made up of border-state governors and other local officials, to help determine whether the border is secure and, therefore, whether immigrants can gain the right to pursue citizenship.
Such a consensus would be difficult, if not impossible, immigrant advocates argue. For instance, many conservatives say the border remains a problem despite the deportation of more than 1 million immigrants and unprecedented spending by the Obama administration. Many experts, on the other hand, believe the border is effectively secured.
Some liberals wondered whether the new commission would empower conservatives like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to complicate the citizenship process. The senators later clarified that the Department of Homeland Security would have the final say, drawing on objective data, in addition to advice from the commission — but some advocates viewed the commission idea as a tactical error by Democratic negotiators.
“It pushed the debate to the right more than it needed to be,” said one advocate close to the deliberations.
Arturo Carmona, executive director of the group Presente.org, a more combative pro-immigrant group on the left, said he was “shocked” at how the discussion in Washington had shifted in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 elections, when it appeared the momentum was on the side of the pro-immigrant groups. He warned that liberal groups and the White House risked losing their leverage if they compromise.