Launching a fresh effort toward a sweeping U.S. immigration overhaul, President Barack Obama said Thursday that a bipartisan bill on the "sensitive and volatile political issue" will be difficult but must get underway this year.
"It's going it require some heavy lifting," Obama said as he gathered about 30 lawmakers from both parties and across the ideological spectrum on immigration at a White House meeting. "It's going to require a victory of practicality and common sense and good policy making over short-term politics. That's what I'm committed to doing as president."
Comprehensive change in immigration policy was a personal priority for Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who was so confident of its chances that he once told reporters: "I'll see you at the bill signing." But the bill collapsed in the Senate in 2007, mostly under the weight of criticism from conservatives who saw it as an amnesty bill that was publicly unpopular and politically untenable.
Much of the debate centered on the the roughly 12 million illegals already living in the United States.
Helped energize turnout
Some believe Republicans are more motivated this time to get on board, as immigration helped energize turnout toward Obama and other Democrats in the 2008 election.
Obama's opponent in the presidential election, Republican Sen. John McCain, was a high-profile supporter of immigration changes last time and it cost him support within his own party. But he rallied to win the Republican nomination for the presidency and Obama gave him special recognition for paying "a significant political cost for doing the right thing."
"There's not by any means consensus across the table," Obama said. "What I am encouraged by is that after all the overheated rhetoric and the occasional demagoguery on all sides around this issue, we've got a responsible set of leaders sitting around the table who want to actively get something done."
Several lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — said after the meeting with Obama that this year is the last chance to try again for decades.
"We've got one more chance to do this," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican. "If we fail this time around, no politician is going to take this up in a generation."
Obama announced that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will lead a group of key lawmakers on the issue from the House and Senate "to start systematically working through" the stickiest, most emotional questions.
Creating a path to citizenship?
One of those is whether a worker verification system is needed, such as a fraud-resistent, biometric card to catch employers who employ undocumented workers.
Another is how — or whether — to create a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants.
Still another tough issue is whether to expand guest worker programs. Business groups support it, but labor union leaders have joined together this time to oppose it. Unions have called for creation of an independent government commission to decide future immigration of temporary and permanent workers based on labor market needs.
But McCain said flatly on the White House driveway: "We don't need a commission." He said he would not support any bill without an expanded temporary guest worker program, and called on Obama to use his clout with organized labor to get them to ease their opposition.
The president said stepping up border security enforcement also is crucial, especially for an American public with much distrust about whether the number of undocumented workers will just swell further and deepen the problem.