LAS VEGAS — Seizing on a groundswell of support for rewriting the nation’s immigration laws, President Obama challenged Congress on Tuesday to act swiftly to put 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States on a clear path to citizenship.
President Obama delivered remarks on immigration reform on Tuesday in Las Vegas.
He also praised a bipartisan group of senators, who proposed their own sweeping immigration overhaul a day earlier, saying their plan was very much in line with his own proposals, and suggested there was a “genuine desire to get this done soon.”
Speaking at a high school here, Mr. Obama said, “The good news is that for the first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together.”
But Mr. Obama warned that “the closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become.” He said that if Congress did not act quickly enough on its own legislation, he would send up a bill — something the White House has put off for now.
There were hints in Mr. Obama’s speech of potential fault lines in the debate. He declared, for example, that there must be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “from the outset.” That would seem at odds with the assertion by some senators that citizenship must be tied to tighter border security.
Although Mr. Obama did not say it in his speech, the White House is also proposing that the United States treat same-sex couples the same as other families, meaning that people would be able to use their relationship as a basis to obtain a visa.
Mr. Obama offered a familiar list of proposals: tightening security on borders, cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers and temporarily issuing more visas to clear the huge backlog of people applying for legal status in the country.
His speech, on the heels of the bipartisan Senate proposal, sets the terms for one of the year’s landmark legislative debates. These are only the opening steps in a complicated dance, and the effort could still founder, as did the effort to overhaul immigration laws in the George W. Bush administration.
But the flurry of activity underscores the powerful new momentum behind an overhaul of the immigration system, after an election that dramatized the vulnerability of Republicans on the issue, with Mr. Obama piling up lopsided majorities over Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters.
“Most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for too long,” Mr. Obama said to an audience of about 2,000 high school students, many of them Hispanic, who applauded loudly when he mentioned the Dream Act, which offers amnesty to children of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
In scrambling to present their blueprint on Monday, the day before Mr. Obama’s speech, the senators stole a march on the president. But their intent appeared less to undermine his efforts than to stake out their own role in drafting a comprehensive bill.
“It is a fascinating Washington horse race that you don’t always see, and a signal of the seriousness to get across the finish line,” said Angela Kelly, an expert on immigration at the Center for American Progress.
With the senators hoping to pass legislation by this summer, the White House has shelved, for now, plans to introduce its own immigration bill, officials said. Indeed, after two years of feuding with Congress, Mr. Obama finds himself in rare alignment with Democratic and Republican lawmakers on a major issue.
That is what made Mr. Obama’s speech such a novelty: Rather than criticize a do-nothing Congress for its obstructionism, as he did nearly every day during the campaign, he applauded the lawmakers for racing ahead of him, at least for a day.
Beneath the expressions of harmony, however, Ms. Kelly cautioned; “There’s so much they don’t agree on. There’s going to be a lot of soul-searching.”
Among the key differences is whether to make the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants contingent on stricter border controls and visa procedures.
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