President Barack Obama presented his own plans for immigration reform in Las Vegas Tuesday, saying he wants Congress to act soon on improving the country’s immigration system.
During a speech in a Nevada high school, the president said strengthening border security, cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, and streamlining a path to legal immigration are key to fixing what’s been called a broken system.
Among his proposed initiatives are cracking down on criminals who smuggle immigrants and produce fake passports and visas, creating an electronic employment verification system and allowing undocumented children who were brought to the country as children to earn citizenship by attending college or serving two years in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Obama’s proposal has many of the same points as an immigration reform plan presented by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Monday. The presidential plan would offer protections to gay and lesbian couples and provide a more direct route to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“We got to lay out a path, a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line,” Obama said.
The president cautioned there will be an emotional debate, reminding people that everyone in this country has a connection to immigration.
“It’s easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of ‘us versus them.’ And when that happens a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them. We forget that,” the president said.
But aware that progress can turn into gridlock, the president warned lawmakers that he will take matters into his own hands if they do not reach an agreement.
“If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send a bill based on my proposal and insist they vote on it right away,” Obama said.
Republicans in Congress reacted cautiously to the president’s speech, with a spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner urging the president not to throw congressional negotiations off track.
It was a sentiment shared by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, before Obama even took to the stage.
“If this endeavor becomes a bidding war to see who can come up with easiest, quickest way to a green card possible, this thing is not going to go well, folks,” Rubio said.
An immigrant resource center called “Make the Road New York” held a watch party for the speech in Queens.
Those who attended said they were happy that the president acknowledged the situation faced by many undocumented immigrants, but they also said actions speak louder than words.
“It was nice to hear the leader of this nation talk about immigration and remind everyone that somebody from their ancestry came from somewhere else, so that was alleviating,” said Natalia Aristizabal of Make The Road New York. “I also think that we’ve heard him speak a lot in the past, so that we hope that this time around, there is more actions.”
Some at the meeting also said that given the number of votes Obama received from immigrant communities, it makes sense for him to push forward an agenda on immigration reform.