Seeking to boost the bipartisan momentum in Congress for tackling immigration reform, President Obama said Tuesday that he now sees “a genuine desire to get this done soon” — but warned that the debate will get more heated in the weeks ahead.
Mr. Obama traveled to Las Vegas to deliver a major speech on immigration just a day after a bipartisan group of eight senators announced a framework for a bill calling for most illegal immigrants to obtain legal status “on Day One,” with green cards and a full path to citizenship to follow once more action has been taken to secure the border.
“The good news is that — for the first time in many years — Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together,” Mr. Obama said, blessing the broad outlines of the senators’ deal and saying the borders are secure enough to begin granting illegal immigrants citizenship.
But the latest numbers suggest that illegal crossings from the Mexican border once again may be on the rise after falling for six years. The U.S. Border Patrol made 356,873 arrests on the border in fiscal year 2012, up 9 percent from 2011.
The Border Patrol figures that apprehensions are a good proxy for illegal crossings, so when the numbers go up, it means that the flow of illegal immigrants is rising as well.
That could complicate Mr. Obama’s effort, particularly in the House, where Republicans have vowed to take a close look at the border situation.
Debate begins in earnest next week, when the House Judiciary Committee holds the first immigration hearing of the 113th Congress, followed a week later by the first Senate hearing.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House panel, said lawmakers will “should cautiously study” the president’s proposal.
“When we look at proposals that deal with the legal status of 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., the American people and members of Congress have a lot of questions about how this would work, what it would cost and how it will prevent illegal immigration in the future,” the Virginia Republican said.
But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate panel, called Mr. Obama’s speech “courageous” and said he would convene his hearing the day after the president’s State of the Union address.
Mr. Obama urged Congress not to let fights over details derail a bill, as has happened repeatedly.
He rejected House Republicans’ idea of breaking up immigration into separate bills, saying the legislation must tackle all parts together — including a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
“For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship,” the president said.
Ahead of his speech, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and one of eight senators who worked on the bipartisan Senate deal, cautioned Mr. Obama against trying to outbid them.
“Let me just say this. If this endeavor becomes a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest, quickest and cheapest pathway to a green card possible, this thing is not going to go well, folks,” Mr. Rubio said on the Senate floor. “We have now a very common-sense and reasonable set of principles, and I hope that the president will say today that he hopes that process succeeds. But if his intentions are to trigger a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest process, this is not a good start.”