WASHINGTON — On the eve of the White House's long-delayed bipartisan meeting Thursday to kick off its drive to revamp U.S. immigration policy, lawmakers and interest groups weighed in Wednesday on what's needed in a comprehensive bill.
The senator tapped to write it, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., gave his most detailed outline to date on what he intends to include in an immigration bill that he and congressional Democratic leaders say could be written and voted on this fall.
Schumer's goal is to balance a get-tough approach to illegal immigration while still providing a path to citizenship for the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants who're already here.
"I do not believe that a bipartisan immigration bill can be enacted if my colleagues on the other side of the aisle do not believe that Democrats are serious about enforcement," Schumer told a conference at Georgetown University.
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Schumer said that Democrats can no longer afford to use soft, euphemistic language about illegal immigration if they are to pass an immigration bill on Obama's watch.
"When we use phrases like 'undocumented workers,' we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration, which the American people overwhelmingly oppose."
Schumer's immigration plan includes:
- Acknowledging that illegal immigration is wrong and making a dramatic reduction in future illegal immigration a priority.
Schumer laid down his markers one day before he and other lawmakers convene at the White House to launch Obama's effort to overhaul the country's immigration policy, a goal that eluded his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The meeting comes after two postponements, which prompted some immigration advocates to question Obama's commitment to Hispanic voters. Obama promised during the presidential campaign that he would address immigration in his first year in office.
That vow helped him earn 67 percent of the Hispanic vote to Republican presidential candidate John McCain's 31 percent.
"We see this as really a critical moment of truth on immigration," said the Most Rev. Jaime Soto, the Bishop of Sacramento and a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration. "Tomorrow's meeting will tell us if the administration is serious about enacting comprehensive immigration reform this year, or is it perhaps getting timid and abandoning commitments that it made during the campaign."
White House officials and congressional Democratic leaders have given mixed signals on how eager they are to move immigration forward. Their agenda is already loaded with complex urgent challenges, including an overhaul of national health insurance, trying to cap carbon emissions, redesigning financial regulation, confirming a new justice for the Supreme Court, as well as the usual spending and budget measures.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Obama would like to see immigration addressed this year, but added "currently where we sit, the math makes that real difficult."
However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that he has the votes to push immigration legislation through the Senate.
"What is impacting doing comprehensive immigration reform is getting floor time to do it," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., questioned Congress' ability to get to immigration this year, given the crowded legislative schedule.
"We've got a full plate already," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "There's been very little discussion in our conference about the way forward on immigration reform. So really I haven't given much thought to that issue lately."
Gibbs said that Obama will be in a listening mode on Thursday.
"The president was a participant in the (immigration) debate in 2006 in the Senate," Gibbs said. "I think one of the things that he hopes to hear and wants to hear from folks is based on what we know and have learned from those debates, does that affect the path forward."
Soto, on a conference call with other immigration advocates, said he'll be listening for assurances that lawmakers will overhaul immigration in a comprehensive manner, not piecemeal.
"What I'm afraid of is the tendency to want to put this off into the future and, in a sense, the 'Manana Syndrome,'" he said. "What I want to hear is that they are ready to engage the issue and move it now."
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