President Barack Obama used a campaign-style rally in Las Vegas to portray himself as a champion for immigrants, and to style an immigration rewrite as a rejuvenation of the nation’s stalled economy.
The pitch also acknowledged the opposition of Americans who worry that immigration will disadvantage American blue-collar workers and middle-income professionals.
“The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become,” he said.
“Immigration always inflames passions … [and prior immigrants] faced racism, they faced ridicule,” said Obama.
He speech at Del Sol High School was loudly applauded by the mostly Hispanic audience, reflecting their recognition of Obama’s support for immigrants.
“I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. (Applause.) The time is now. Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time,” Obama said, according to the White House transcript.
“Sí se puede! Sí se puede!” the audience chanted.
His repetition of that phrase mimics dialog from the much-praised movie, “Lincoln,” in which the actor playing Abraham Lincoln tells his allies to push “now” for a constitutional amendment to end slavery.
Some immigration advocates — including Democratic representatives — worried the president’s pitch would inflame GOP opposition to the pending rewrites. They worry that Obama wants to use the issue for near-term advantage by spurring an anti-GOP vote by Hispanic voters in the 2014 midterm election.
In contrast, Hispanic groups want to pass a bill that would provide residency or citizenship to millions of Latinos and other immigrants. Business groups just want work permits for new workers.
Obama did not use his speech to demand that any immigration rewrite grant gays and lesbians the right to bring in foreign partners. White House officials have said they support that controversial measure, which some immigration advocates fear would damage the bill’s prospects.
“Something like that LGBT issue would have been a poison pill,” said Ana Navarro, an advocate who helped Sen. John McCain seek Hispanic votes in 2008.
In 2008, McCain won 31 percent of the Latino vote, despite McCain’s prominent push for an major immigration bill that would have allowed 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the county.”
The Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, downplayed the speech, without dismissing hopes for an immigration rewrite.
“There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system,” said Brendan Buck, Boehner’s spokesman. “Any solution should be a bipartisan one, and we hope the president is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate.”
Obama’s push for new immigration comes as the nation’s economy struggles to recover from the damage caused by the post-1996 real-estate bubble. Employment and wages have grown very slowly since 2009, and roughly 23 million Americans — including many immigrants — are now unemployed or underemployed.
Nevada, for example, had a formal unemployment rate of 10.2 percent in December 2012.
In his speech, Obama called for a faster process that would provide work permits and green cards to roughly 11 million illegal immigrants.
A group of eight senators have developed a basic framework that would lay out a conditional citizenship path for 11 million immigrants, and increase the so-called “future flow” of blue-collar and professional workers.
That pending deal would immediately provide the immigrants with work permits, but postpone the award of citizenship for some undetermined time.
The award of citizenship is important, partly because it allows immigrants to vote. But it also allows immigrants full access to welfare programs, and the right to bring close relatives into the United States.
“You will hear a great deal of urgency from the president in terms of getting this moving soon,” an senior administration official told reporters prior to the speech.
The faster process is needed to provide green cards to immigrants and their family members who already waiting in line, and ease future immigration of specialized workers, the official said.
“You have to make adjustments … to the country ceilings, and in the employment system, and the family-based system,” he said.
Throughout the speech, Obama used carefully chosen language to mute public concerns about immigrants and jobs.
Some businesses employ illegal immigrants a low wages, Obama said. “We have to bring this shadow economy into the light so that everybody is held accountable — businesses for who they hire, and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law,” he said.
He promised to increase border security, even as he also called for continued legal immigration of additional workers. He described the award of citizenship to immigrants as an earned reward, and repeatedly portrayed his policy as good for Americans.
Illegal immigrants should receive “a pathway to earned citizenship,” he said.
Overall, the rewrite is needed to provide “improvements in the legal immigration system so we continue to be magnet for the best and brightest.”
Obama is extending his push for Hispanic support by giving interviews to two Spanish-language TV stations — Univision and Telemundo — on Wednesday.