“Now is the time,” Obama said, eliciting chants of “Si, se puede” — roughly translated as “Yes, it’s possible” — from the crowd at a majority Hispanic high school here. “We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate.”
Fresh off a decisive reelection, Obama is seizing this moment as one in which both sides could come together to address widespread anxieties within rising demographic groups, particularly Hispanics and Asian Americans.
But obstacles still loomed large Tuesday on Capitol Hill, fueled by continued unease among conservative Republicans over going too far to loosen immigration restrictions. One of the biggest disputes centers on whether illegal immigrants would have to wait to seek a green card — the first step to full citizenship — until the U.S. border with Mexico is secure and other enforcement measures are in place.
A bipartisan Senate plan released Monday would tie the possibility of citizenship to several such enforcement measures, including a system to verify the immigration status of employees. The president did not comment explicitly on that proposal in his speech, but the administration suggested in its own guidelines released Tuesday that it does not want to link the citizenship process to other goals.
“It must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship,” Obama said, adding that the administration has made great strides in an effort to toughen enforcement.
Some key Republicans expressed concern with any approach that does not link border security with the proposal to offer illegal immigrants a way to become citizens.
“Without such triggers in place, enforcement systems will never be implemented and we will be back in just a few years dealing with millions of new undocumented people in our country,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential 2016 presidential candidate and one of eight senators who signed on to the bipartisan framework.
Another set of pitfalls awaits in the House, where many Republicans are deeply skeptical of any legislation that they believe might be overly generous to illegal immigrants.
“There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “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.”