WASHINGTON — Calling the immigration system busted, President Obama on Tuesday urged a swift path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants and even expanded on a new bipartisan Senate plan, including letting individuals seek visas for gay partners.
Obama told a Las Vegas crowd that the time is now for “comprehensive immigration reform” and suggested he’d offer his own detailed plan if Congress doesn’t move quickly enough.
His speech followed Monday’s unveiling of the Senate plan, which he praised as evidence that “Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together.” But there are significant differences that hint at the nasty legislative battles ahead over specifics.
While the Senate plan lets illegal immigrants get legal residency quickly, it ties obtaining citizenship to both improved border security and a verification system to be used by employers. That reflects demands by many Republicans who fear a surge in new illegal immigration without such provisions.
Conspicuously, Obama did not bring up that so-called “trigger” and thus implied his disagreement. He instead focused on the need for illegal immigrants to register with authorities, pay their taxes, pass criminal background checks and learn English.
“If you’re able to meet some basic criteria, we’ll offer you the chance to come out of the shadows,” he said in backing a faster potential road to citizenship.
The speech tracked a 29-point plan he outlined last year, including tighter border security and being tough on employers who hire illegal immigrants. A notable difference is allowing visa applications for same-sex partners. But the real difference is the context, as Republicans openly concede, after Obama’s election victory and what polls suggest is growing popular support for change.
Those supporters include dozens who watched the speech projected on the wall of an immigrant-rights advocacy group in Jackson Heights, Queens. For them, the changes urged by Obama can’t come soon enough.
“He said we are undocumented but we aren’t criminals. Our dream could become reality if we get amnesty,” said Ecuadoran immigrant Tania Gordillo, 43, who brought three of her children to the offices of Make the Road New York.
“I was so interested when he said this wasn’t an issue about policy, but about people,” said Nubia Capador, 51, a housecleaner formerly from Colombia who lives in Queens Village. She has papers, but her 31-year-old son, John, does not.
“I would love for him to be able to feel secure, able to work, to visit our family. This would change his life,” she said.
Vicente Mayorga, 59, who moved from Ecuador nearly two decades ago, said he counts at least eight family members who are in the U.S. illegally. “It’s so emotional to know that the doors are opening,” he said.