Anxious to inject fresh energy in what was meant to be one of the top policy priorities of his second term, Barack Obama today urged Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform by year’s end.
“It doesn’t get easier to put it off,” said Mr Obama in a White House appearance surrounded by advocates of reform and accompanied also by Vice President Joe Biden, who, with his own Irish roots never far from his mind, could yet play a behind-the-scenes role in corralling members of Congress towards passing a bill.
While the US Senate earlier this year did negotiate and adopt a sweeping package of changes that notably would open a path to American citizenship for the estimated 11 million people already living in the US without proper papers, the effort has been long-stalled in the House. The topic has meanwhile faded from view amid the government shutdown and more recently the chaotic roll-out of healthcare reforms.
President Obama suggested pointedly that moving forward on the issue might give Congress the chance to redeem itself with Americans increasingly dismayed with its performance.
“Rather than create problems, let’s prove to the American people that Washington can actually solve some problems,” he said.
Many believe that the Republicans may have the most to lose by not grasping the issue. Their standing is particularly low among Hispanics, an increasingly important demographic that came down heavily for Mr Obama in the last presidential contest. Latino Americans have been especially vocal about the need for an ambitious immigration package. The last time significant legislation was passed was back in 1986.
Significant business interests that might normally ally themselves with Republicans have also been pressing Washington to come to grips with mending an immigration system that is widely seen as broken.
Much will depend on the House speaker John Boehner, who, not for the first time, may struggle to bring his conservative, Tea Party flank on side to support any comprehensive bill. Many conservatives are opposed to giving citizenship to anyone who has been living in the country illegally, even though the Senate bill would require a multi-year waiting period as well as fines. Rather than agreeing on one sweeping bill, many on the right of the party would rather tackle the problem with a series of less ambitious measures, if at all.
First reaction to Mr Obama’s pitch from the office of Mr Boehner tonight was not necessarily encouraging.
“The House is committed to a common sense, step-by-step approach that gives Americans confidence that reform is done the right way," spokesman Brendan Buck said. “We hope that the president will work with us - not against us - as we pursue this deliberate approach.”