Mr. Obama has presided over such ceremonies in the past, but the White House used this event in the East Room to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers whose leaders are nearing agreement on a sweeping immigration bill despite misgivings among some rank-and-file legislators.
“The time has come to fix it once and for all,” Mr. Obama said of the nation’s immigration system at the ceremony for 28 new U.S. citizens. “We’ve just got at this point to work up the political courage to do what’s required to be done.”
Congress is on a two-week recess for Easter, during which time aides are continuing to draft the legislation that likely will be introduced next month, a process that has the support of both parties’ leaders in both chambers.
A bipartisan group of senators is working on a proposal that would put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship while allowing tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country. It would include a boost in the number of visas for high-tech workers, a new guest-worker program and elimination of some categories of visas for extended family members.
One of the sticking points has been a dispute over wages for lower-skilled temporary workers, which pits the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against the AFL-CIO. Under the proposal, as many as 200,000 immigrants would be granted visas each year for low-skilled jobs that U.S. employers have difficulty filling.
In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said that a bipartisan bill could be introduced in the next few weeks.
Mr. Obama called the progress “good news,” but he said Congress needs to complete its work soon.
“I expect the debate to begin next month,” he said. “I want to sign that bill into law as soon as possible. We know that real reform means continuing to strengthen our border security and holding employers accountable.”
The legislation will call for increased border control, though U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week stunned lawmakers by telling them that it does not have a way to effectively measure border security.
Not all powerful lawmakers are on board with the “speedy bill” approach favored by Mr. Obama and Capitol Hill’s leaders, either.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and five other Republican senators fired a letter off last week to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy saying they want more hearings and time to study before any bill is pushed through the committee. They pointed out that 43 new senators have joined the chamber since 2007, when the last major congressional push on immigration happened.
While in the past the issue divided each party and its constituents, Democrats are increasingly united behind Mr. Obama’s push. But Republicans are split between concerns about border security and a desire to win over Hispanic voters, who have been reluctant to vote for GOP presidential candidates the past two elections.
In 2007, President George W. Bush tried to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill with the help of the new Democrat-controlled Congress. But the fragile left-right coalition snapped when voters flooded the Senate switchboards calling for the focus to be on border security, and when those in both parties split over how to handle future foreign workers.
The president has made immigration one of the top priorities of his second term, mindful of a long-standing promise to Hispanic voters that he would achieve the goal. The movement on the issue since November’s elections also reflects concern among Republican lawmakers about Hispanics’ growing support for Democratic candidates, and the perception among Hispanics that the GOP is anti-immigration.