Obama to back Senate immigration effort in Las Vegas on Tuesday

Up to four out of five Nevada Hispanic voters backed President Barack Obama last November, returning him to the White House in hopes he would deliver on his long-delayed promise of comprehensive immigration overhaul.

On Tuesday, the president will visit Las Vegas to lay out his plan to provide a legal pathway for possible U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Why Nevada?

“Why not?” Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “Nevada is an important state. Every state has a stake in this. I’m sure he will travel elsewhere to talk about this important issue.”

Nevada played a key role in Obama’s re-election as one of a dozen battleground states that helped the Democratic incumbent beat Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Nov. 6. And Hispanics made the difference, composing 18 percent of the Nevada electorate in 2012, according to Latino Decisions.

The president’s victory, despite a lagging economy, delivered a political wake-up call to the GOP, which has been losing the minority vote in a nation that has a growing and increasingly powerful Latino population.

In a sign of GOP rapprochement with Hispanics, four Republican U.S. senators on Monday joined four Democratic colleagues to announce a bipartisan immigration overhaul package that shares the president’s goals. The senators signaled 2013 could be the year of broad reform, although the GOP-led House may resist some ideas.

One of the Republicans was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 president candidate who grew up partly in Las Vegas and campaigned in Nevada last year for Romney and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Heller said he supported the bipartisan effort, although in years past he has taken some hard immigration lines.

“It is encouraging to see President Obama, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans commit to passing reforms that will create an orderly immigration process for those wishing to take part in the American Dream,” Heller said, adding he has talked with Rubio and the other GOP senators about the issue. “This bipartisan group of senators has provided a reasonable starting point for Republicans and Democrats to work together.”

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also called the bipartisan package “a positive first step.”

“I’ll do everything in my power as majority leader to get a bill across the finish line,” Reid said.

Obama administration officials said the president will endorse the Senate effort during his Las Vegas speech at 11:55 a.m. today at Del Sol High School, a troubled school with a heavy Hispanic student body. Obama will outline his own immigration reform blueprint, a version of which he first released in 2011.

More than 20 labor leaders from across the country will join Obama at the Las Vegas event, from the AFL-CIO to the Service Employees International Union, including Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina.

“We’re all united in making immigration reform a top priority,” Medina said of the union campaign, which will including lobbying Congress and communities ahead of a planned April 10 rally in Washington, D.C.

The president’s 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 – the so-called DREAMers, named after DREAM Act legislation that sought to help them but has failed to move on Capitol Hill.

Last year, during the heat of his re-election campaign, Obama announced a program to offer DREAM Act youth two-year work permits that would allow them to stay in the country without fear of deportation.

But many immigrant families have become more fearful of being torn apart with the DREAM Act and U.S.-born children allowed to stay but parents deported if discovered, advocates have said.

Blanca Gamez, a Las Vegas resident, said Monday she is from a “mixed status” family. A DREAM act work permit applicant, Gamez, 23, was brought here from Mexico when she was 7 months old. Her sister, 21, was born in the United States. Her parents are undocumented: her mother a housewife, her father an electrician.

“There is a constant fear of our parents being separated from us,” Gamez said, fighting back tears at a news conference as she told of receiving calls and texts from friends whose parents were deported.

The news conference was organized by a new group called Keeping Families Together. It was launched by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which is lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform.

Gamez’s mother, Amelia, said she and others DREAM Act mothers two weeks ago formed a new group, Madres por Justicia, or Mothers for Justice, to fight for immigration overhaul, too. She said she was no longer afraid.

“For me, it’s happy,” Amelia Gamez said, adding she hopes to obtain citizenship. “It will happen.”

The Senate proposals call for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here but with stronger border security and better tracking of people in the United States on visas.

The Senate framework also calls for giving green cards to immigrants with certain advanced degrees from U.S. universities, creating a high-tech employment verification system to ensure employers don’t hire illegal immigrants and allowing more low-skill and agricultural workers in the United States.

Stephens Media Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this story. Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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