Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez said Thursday that President Obama squandered his chance to take the lead on immigration, and said the best role the president can play now is to cheer along the progress in Congress and try to rally support outside the Capitol.
“The moment for the president to be the sole leader on immigration that moment passed. He had four years,” Mr. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said in an interview taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, scheduled to air Sunday. “The moment is passed. The moment today is for all of us in the House and in the Senate, in collaboration with this president.”
Mr. Gutierrez said the White House should allow the process to play out in the Senate, where negotiators unveiled their bill this week, and in the House, where Mr. Gutierrez is part of a bipartisan group working on what is likely to be a more conservative plan.
The eight senators who wrote the plan introduced it early Wednesday morning, but officially rolled it out Thursday at a news conference, where they said they were preparing for a tough legislative fight.
“Today is just the beginning of our voyage,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “It will be long and arduous. There will be perils we can’t even anticipate, but we start off with optimism because this bipartisan agreement gives us a sturdy ship to ride out the stormy seas ahead.”
The Senate proposal would first legalize illegal immigrants and give them the right to work in the U.S. But it would withhold their full pathway to citizenship until the government meets benchmarks on border security including proving it is catching or turning back 90 percent of all illegal border crossings.
Immigration has been a touchy political issue for more than a decade, and while all sides agree that the system is broken, efforts to overhaul it in 2006 and 2007 fell short.
Last year’s elections elevated the issue again though it will still be a major lift to get a bill through the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-run House, where key Republicans were skeptical of the Senate approach.
“While the bill makes a good-faith effort to overhaul our broken immigration system, there are some flaws which could lead to the same problems in the future that we have today,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, who checked off the need for stiffer enforcement and said he is worried that the Senate relies on budget gimmicks to try to keep the cost low.
A number of thorny questions remain for those writing bills. One of those is what happens in the interim period between the time the president signs a bill and the initial legalization happens a six-month period, in the Senate bill.
Mr. Gutierrez said it will be up to Mr. Obama to unilaterally halt most deportations at that point.
The congressman said there is a good precedent for doing that. He said that was what President Reagan did in 1986, which was the last time Congress passed an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Mr. Gutierrez clashed with Mr. Obama on immigration for much of his first term. In 2010, he was arrested outside of the White House as part of a protest against the rate of deportations under the Obama administration.
But that high rate of deportations is also ammunition that Mr. Gutierrez said he can use to persuade immigrant rights advocates to accept a long, arduous pathway to citizenship.
“I think the end goal is what is essential,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s 1,400 today, 1,400 tomorrow that will be deported, and it goes undeterred 1.6 million during the last four years unprecedented number of deportations. That stops. That stops. And I think that’s a huge part of what is pushing comprehensive immigration reform.”
Mr. Gutierrez said in the end, he expects “the immense majority” of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country will qualify for legalization.
Anticipating the legislative fights to come, members of the “Gang of Eight” emphasized that their plan bolsters national security through the proposed E-Verify system and stronger border security and also ensures that American workers get the first crack at open jobs.
“The status quo threatens our security, damages our economy, disregards the rule of law and neglects our humanitarian responsibilities,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “A problem of that magnitude that affects so many of our interests will never be easy to address but never more necessary to address either.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, also went on a public relations blitz, assuring conservative radio outlets that the proposal, among other things, does not lead to “amnesty.”
Mr. McCain also said the bill will go through the normal legislative process starting with committee hearings next month but that the eight senators are poised to act together and defeat any amendment that would kill the bill outright.
“We are also committed to vote against amendments or proposals or changes that would kill the bill,” Mr. McCain said. “We’re not saying it’s a perfect piece of legislation, and we think it can be improved on, but we also know opponents will be proposing amendments that, if passed, could collapse this very fragile coalition that we’ve been able to achieve.”
Mr. Gutierrez, too, predicted difficult sailing for the legislation, and he said that will be when Mr. Obama can best play a role.
“Look, there’s going to come some hard times and we’re going to need him to use that bully pulpit, I believe, in the future,” he said. “It’s going to get stymied, there’s going to be hiccups, you guys have been around long enough, we’re going to need him there, so he is critical and essential to this process.”