In his first visit to Nevada since his re-election, President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled his plan for comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for 11 million people now living in the United States illegally.
The president also endorsed the principles of a bipartisan Senate plan, saying he shares the lawmakers' goals. He called on Congress to act and said if it doesn't he will offer his own immigration plan.
"A call for action can now be heard coming from all across America," Obama said, speaking to an estimated 2,000 people in the Del Sol High School gym. "Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time."
Obama laid out three principles for reform: strengthen border enforcement, offer a pathway to "earned citizenship" and improve the legal immigration system to allow more university-educated immigrants to stay in the United States and contribute to the economy, for example.
He noted that immigrants helped start high-tech companies such as Google and Yahoo, and that one in four new companies in the U.S. was launched by immigrants. He harkened back to the nation's development when the "huddled masses" came to America to enjoy freedom and prosperity.
"Most of us used to be them," Obama said, adding that new waves of immigrants had to overcome hardship, racism and ridicule before being accepted into society.
Still, Obama said no illegal immigrant would get a free ride, and the path to citizenship would include a background check, paying taxes and penalties, learning English "and then going to the back of the line" to apply.
"It won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process," Obama said to cheers. "And it will lift these individuals out of the shadows and give them a chance to earn their way to a green card and eventually to citizenship."
Obama unveiled his plan a day after four GOP senators and four Democratic senators announced an immigration reform package that also would make it possible for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship, although details varied and could lead to stumbling blocks to a final deal.
The president said he was pleased both Democrats and Republicans are working together to achieve the first major immigration reform since the 1980s under Republican President Ronald Reagan.
"We need Congress to act on a comprehensive approach that finally deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in this country right now," Obama said. "The good news is that - for the first time in many years - Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together.
"Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution," he added, saying the Senate ideas "are very much in line with the principles I've proposed and campaigned on for the last few years."
Obama expressed optimism, although he and the Senate leaders could face opposition in the GOP-controlled House and from Republicans who see the plan as just another amnesty program.
"At this moment, it looks like there's a genuine desire to get this done soon," the president said. "And that's very encouraging."
The president spoke for 25 minutes in a campaign-style setting, sharing the stage with a dozen U.S. flags. The audience included union leaders, farm workers and immigration advocates invited by the White House. The guests applauded and pledged to lobby for broad immigration reform.
"We want to make sure he's taking into account the farm workers," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. He said up to 2 million farm workers nationwide are immigrants and about half are undocumented.
Obama promised immigration reform when he was elected, but failed to deliver during his first term. He has made it a top priority for his second term, when his legacy may be more on his mind.
The president's immigration plan focuses on providing a pathway to citizenship, improved border security, an overhaul of the legal immigration system and making it easier for businesses to verify the legal status of workers. Among the 11 undocumented immigrants are 1.4 million brought to the United States as children - DREAMers, named after DREAM Act legislation that sought to help them but has failed to move on Capitol Hill.
In his speech, Obama singled out Alan Aleman, a DREAMer from Las Vegas who was among the first in Nevada to acquire a two-year work permit the president offered last year to young undocumented immigrants.
Aleman, 20, was brought illegally by his parents to the United States from Mexico when he was 11. He's now attending the College of Southern Nevada, studying to be a doctor.
"All he wants is the opportunity to do his part to build a better America," Obama said of Aleman. "So in the coming weeks, as the idea of reform becomes more real and the debate becomes more heated, and there are folks who are trying to pull this thing apart, remember Alan and all those who share the same hopes and the same dreams."
The bipartisan Senate proposals also call for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, but with stronger border security measures and better tracking of people in the U.S. on visas.
In addition, the Senate framework would give green cards to immigrants with certain advanced degrees from U.S. universities, create a high-tech employment verification system to ensure employers don't hire illegal immigrants and allow more low-skill and agricultural workers in the United States.
Some Republican senators who helped craft the plan have expressed reservations about Obama's approach. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the senators wanted to first shore up border security before offering a path to citizenship. The president noted the border is more secure than ever and he doesn't embrace a two-step process.
"I think that would be a terrible mistake," Rubio told Fox News on Tuesday. "We have a bipartisan group of senators that have agreed to that. For the president to try to move the goalposts on that specific requirement, as an example, does not bode well in terms of what his role's going to be in this or the outcome."
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Tuesday that it's a mistake for the president to push for same-sex couples to be included in immigration reform, if he wants Republicans to support the bill.
"Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out," Graham said, according to a Huffington Post report.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backed Obama's plan and emphasized that Congress needs to demonstrate progress on immigration reform this year. "I'm very, very hopeful," Reid told reporters in Washington. He noted that Obama embraced principles negotiated by senators, "but with the caveat he is not going to wait around forever to actually have legislation that we move on."
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., on Tuesday signed on as a co-sponsor to legislation that's part of the Senate package of proposed reforms: a bill aimed at attracting more highly skilled workers. The measure would increase the number of temporary work visas and employment-based green cards for foreign workers.
"While I'm pleased to see the Senate working together on a bipartisan set of principles for immigration reform, this is legislation that the Senate can act on immediately," Heller said in a statement.
Two other Republican senators involved in the immigration reform package also were co-signers - Rubio and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. The primary sponsor is Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
While Obama and Democrats are hoping to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform all at once, some Republicans have argued for approving one piece at a time - another political point of contention to overcome.
Obama, in his remarks, said he anticipates a rough road ahead as lawmakers near agreement.
"I promise you this: The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become," the president said. "Immigration has always been an issue that inflames passions. That's not surprising. There are few things that are more important to us as a society than who gets to come here and call our country home; who gets the privilege of becoming a citizen of the United States of America. That's a big deal."
The president made his announcement on friendly turf in a state where 26 percent of the population is Latino.
Nevada was one of a dozen battleground states that helped the Democratic incumbent beat Republican presidential challengerThe audience included union leaders, farm workers and immigration advocates invited by the White House Mitt Romney on Nov. 6. And Hispanics made the difference, composing 18 percent of the Nevada electorate in 2012, according to Latino Decisions. Some 80 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.