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Obama hits the road to sell immigration reform in Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

President Barack Obama speaks during at a campaign rally at the Cheyenne Sports Complex near the College of Southern Nevada in North Las Vegas Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

Immigration Reform

Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla, states his support for immigrants and pledges to work in favor of immigration reform to reporters as immigration reform activists protest in front of Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. Launch slideshow »

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will kick off his public push for immigration reform with a visit to Las Vegas today. But as he hits the road to deliver his argument to voters outside the Beltway, the center of the immigration debate appears to be settling squarely in Washington.

Late Sunday, news broke that a bipartisan group of eight senators had struck a deal on a framework for immigration reform, agreeing to balance enhancing enforcement measures to prevent illegal immigration with establishing a “tough but fair” pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

The announcement of a bipartisan framework puts new momentum and urgency behind the drive toward comprehensive immigration reform, which the president planned to spearhead with his own plan in Las Vegas.

But it also is a stark reminder of where this has gone wrong before — and why, in 2013, things need to be different if Obama wants to cement immigration reform as part of his legacy.

When he speaks in Las Vegas, Obama is expected to lay out a plan for immigration reform in an effort to build public support for his approach.

When the president returns to Washington, his spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will be committed to working with lawmakers “to help bring about a result that is a detailed, specific bill that can win bipartisan support in Congress and that this president can sign.”

On Monday, however, Carney simultaneously praised and downplayed the significance of the senators’ deal.

“This is an important first step that we’ve seen from Congress,” Carney said. “The goal here is not for everyone just to get together and say we share common principles but to achieve legislation that gets the job done.”

To some extent, the two go hand in hand. Because the House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate is controlled by Democrats, any issue — especially one that has been as controversial as immigration reform — must be a bipartisan effort if it is to have a chance of succeeding.

To that end, the four Democratic senators and four Republican senators agreed on four principles:

• Create a pathway to citizenship for the current undocumented population.

• Reform the legal immigration system to make it more responsive to the demands of the economy and family reunification.

• Establish an employment verification system.

• Establish an improved process for admitting future workers.

All of those elements also appear in Obama’s plans for a revamped immigration system.

“The president welcomes the efforts by the bipartisan group in the Senate to put forward principles on the need for comprehensive reform — principles that mirror the president’s blueprint, which, as you know, he has been pressing for some time,” Carney said Monday.

But differences between Obama and the bipartisan group of senators are already emerging over the details that will flesh out that framework.

For example: Six years ago, when the Senate last seriously tackled immigration reform, the bipartisan deal that lawmakers struck coalesced around the concept of a “trigger” — essentially, delaying the pathway to citizenship until the achievement of fully secured borders.

Obama did not endorse such a trigger in the immigration blueprint he released in May 2011. But on Monday, leaders of the group of eight senators embraced a triggered structure outright.

“To prove to the American people that we are serious about permanently ending illegal immigration to the U.S., we say that we will never put these individuals on a path to citizenship until we have fully secured our borders and combated the pattern of people overstaying their legal, immigration visas,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Meanwhile, a BuzzFeed report Monday night indicated the president plans to extend immigration rights, including the right to extend citizenship through marriage, to same-sex couples in the framework he will lay out in Las Vegas. The bipartisan senators’ proposal does not include initiatives to facilitate immigration for same-sex couples.

Although the details have yet to emerge, Democrats and Republicans agree the last election demonstrated voters expect Congress to act on immigration reform.

“Elections, elections. The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday.

“The politics on this issue have been turned upside down,” Schumer said. “For the first time ever, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than supporting it.”

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

The importance of immigration in elections is something Obama learned well in Nevada, where the power of the Hispanic vote helped power his campaign to victories in 2008 and 2012. The Hispanic vote also helped propel Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to victory over Sharron Angle in 2010. Though immigration reform is not a top-ranking issue for Hispanic voters, it is a litmus test for that electorate — and one that Democrats have been passing with flying colors, claiming about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in the past several elections.

Even Republicans who have managed to survive those odds know that a viable political future in Nevada depends on being on the right side of the Hispanic population.

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

Sen. Dean Heller, the only Republican to win his Senate race in a state Obama also won in 2012, strongly embraced the principles of the Dream Act in the wake of his election and spoke highly of Obama’s efforts and of the Senate proposal Monday.

“This bipartisan group of senators has provided a reasonable starting point for Republicans and Democrats to work together. I support many of the principles included in this plan and look forward to reviewing specific details in the weeks and months ahead,” Heller said in a statement. “As the president prepares to release his own ideas for immigration reform, it is my hope that he looks to this bipartisan proposal as a blueprint for his plans moving forward.”

The senators who unveiled their framework of principles Monday said they expect finish drafting hard legislation by March and hope that it will pass the Senate by late spring or early summer — a timeline that Reid seems to be fine with.

“It’s very important to me, personally, that we resolve this issue,” Reid said Monday, praising the group of senators for their proposal and promising to do “everything in my power as majority leader” to bring it to the floor for a vote once drafted.

“Nothing short of bipartisan success is acceptable to me,” Reid said.

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