LAS VEGAS -- President Obama on Tuesday outlined his vision for reforming the nation’s immigration policy, calling for a clear path to citizenship for illegal residents who pay their taxes, learn English and abide by the law.
In a speech at a high school here, Obama urged his audience to keep the pressure on lawmakers to end the years-long deadlock on the issue and finally fix what he called a "broken" immigration system.
"This time, action must follow," Obama told a cheering crowd at the Del Sol High School. "We've been debating this a very long time."
If lawmakers decline to act in a "timely fashion," the president said, he'll send up his own proposal and use the power of the bully pulpit to insist that they vote on it right away.
For now, though, Obama is working behind the scenes with members of Congress as they shape a proposal. His aides emphasized the common ground between the president's vision for immigration policy and the leading plans under discussion. A bipartisan group in the Senate unveiled its sketch of a proposal on Monday. A group in the House also appears to be moving toward a compromise.
Obama said he had come to Nevada -- where the growth of the Latino population and its political activism has transformed the state's politics -- to lay down his markers on the issue.
As anticipated, Obama's vision for the future of immigration proved more liberal than the plans being crafted in Congress. The president emphasized that he wanted a "clear" path to citizenship, suggesting that he does not want the legalization process contingent on certifying a secure border, as the Senate group proposes.
"It won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process, and it will lift these individuals out of the shadows and give them a chance to earn their way to a green card and, eventually, to citizenship," Obama said.
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, (R-Ohio) responded to the president’s speech by saying "there are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system."
"Any solution should be a bipartisan one, and 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,” Brendan Buck said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a key member of the bipartisan Senate group drawing up a proposal, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about working with the White House.
“While there are some differences in our approaches to this issue, we share the belief that any reform must recognize America as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” the Arizona Republican said. “We should all agree that border security and enforcement is particularly important in order to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the 1986 immigration reform.”
But the president chose to gloss over differences and focus on the possibility of passing a bipartisan bill. A week after his inaugural address, in which he said he expected to face contentious issues in his second term, Obama said he traveled to Las Vegas to highlight a common ground.
"The reason I came here today is because of a challenge where the differences are dwindling, where a broad consensus is emerging and where a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America," Obama said. "I'm here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. Now's the time. Now's the time.”
As the president spoke the crowd broke into chants of "Si se puede!” – the labor slogan Obama adopted in his 2008 campaign that loosely translates from Spanish to “Yes, we can.”
Very little in the president's proposal was surprising, with his new outline looking a lot like one he issued in the spring of 2011 in a speech in El Paso.
The greatest change between the old Obama proposal and the new one is the context in which it was delivered. Three months after Obama was reelected with strong Latino support in Nevada and other key states, partisans of many stripes are newly open to the idea of legalization for undocumented workers.
Rather than a call to action, as Obama originally envisioned the first major policy address of his new term, the speech was designed to build support for the general principles behind which lawmakers are beginning to coalesce.
Under his plan, immigrants living in the United States illegally would be able to move toward citizenship once they have passed national security and criminal background checks, paid their taxes, additional fees and penalties and learned to speak English.
There should be "no uncertainty about their ability to become U.S. citizens if they meet those eligibility criteria," according to documents released by the White House as the president spoke.
The president's proposal calls for new measures to deter employers from hiring undocumented workers, by making it easier to check a job applicant's immigration status. The plan would make federal databases more widely available for verifying eligibility and would mandate tamper-resistant Social Security cards and worker permits.
He also proposed improving border security by increasing investments in foreign visitor processing, cracking down on criminal networks that smuggle people into the country and expanding deportations of illegal immigrants locked up in state and federal prisons.