Rising tensions over whether to give illegal immigrants a chance to pursue full citizenship could ruin what President Obama and congressional leaders agree is a pivotal moment in resolving long-simmering problems in the country’s immigration system.
Immigrant advocates and their Democratic allies insist that now, at long last, is their time. After various failed proposals over the past decade, they finally feel they have the leverage to accept nothing less than a path to full citizenship for the millions of people living illegally in the country.
But although Republican leaders are newly interested in a compromise on immigration, many in the party say that allowing undocumented immigrants to live here legally is enough and that a push for citizenship would face fierce, and possibly insurmountable, opposition from conservatives.
The tension has deepened in recent days, with disagreements emerging within each party as bipartisan groups in the House and the Senate try to move toward a compromise even as they face hard-line opposition from some voices in their political bases.
On the right, some conservatives have begun heaping criticism on one of their own rising stars, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the Cuban American who is a potential presidential candidate and who is championing a compromise. On the left, some liberals are privately grousing that Democratic senators working with Rubio are giving too much ground.
A key question is whether to require that certain conditions be met before illegal immigrants could be put on the path to citizenship — and how the government would determine success.
The Senate group, which includes Rubio and top members of both parties, would require that the U.S.-Mexico border be found secure and that other strict enforcement measures be enacted before those here illegally could become citizens. Many on the left say the path needs to be more straightforward, while many on the right see even the compromise idea as a non-starter, deeming it too lenient.
A path to citizenship is “certainly going to be a problem in the House,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing next week on the issue. “There are a lot of options between deporting 11 million people, which most people don’t believe will happen, and giving [them] citizenship.”
On the other side, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said he would support only legislation that gives every deserving illegal immigrant a chance at citizenship. “If it’s too exclusionary, then we’ll fight against it,” he said.
The tensions underscore the difficulty of forging consensus on such a politically charged issue, even after Obama’s decisive election win last year among Hispanics led several prominent Republicans to express an eagerness to strike a deal.
The senators behind the framework — Republicans Rubio, John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), along with Democrats Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Michael F. Bennet (Colo.) — have been exuding confidence that a deal was within reach.
“I’ve never felt more positive about the prospects of real immigration reform than I do today,” Durbin said at a news conference Thursday.
Yet even if the senators find agreement among themselves, selling their recommendations to their colleagues and the activists on both sides of the debate will be a far steeper challenge.
Immigration advocates close to the White House have vowed to pressure Obama if he agrees to what they consider unreasonable preconditions to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Conservatives are either insisting on strict contingencies or refusing to back the idea of citizenship.
“The world now thinks that this is inevitable,” said one person with knowledge of the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is far from inevitable. There’s a million land mines in the way.”
Obama has welcomed the Senate plan. But in a speech this week, he called for a path to citizenship “from the outset,” and in subsequent interviews, he appeared to draw a clear line on the issue.
“What we don’t want to do is create some kind of vague prospect in the future that somehow comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship will happen, you know, mañana,” Obama told Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas in a White House interview aired late Wednesday, using the Spanish word for “tomorrow.”
Obama is under pressure to deliver on citizenship from supporters who believe they made his reelection possible. Moreover, many Hispanic leaders think that in his first term, Obama broke a promise to pursue an immigration overhaul. Some advocates remain wary that the president and Democratic lawmakers might be tempted to bargain away their best hope for a clear citizenship path in their quest for a bipartisan deal.