by David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama is pledging to negotiate with Congress on immigration legislation, but he is also working with another group: voters.
Obama flew more than 2,000 miles Tuesday to make his immigration pitch, visiting a politically pivotal state with a growing Hispanic population -- Nevada -- and urging backers to pressure Congress into supporting a big bill.
Speaking at a high school in Las Vegas, Obama said Democrats and Republicans are starting to come together on a new immigration bill that would include a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
"I'm here today because the time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform," Obama said before echoing a mantra, "now is the time ... now is the time."
Obama applauded the framework put forward Monday by a bipartisan group of eight senators, and said he has pushed some of the same ideas for years. Noting that previous efforts to forge an immigration bill have failed, Obama said that "this time action must follow," and immigration should not "get bogged down in an endless debates," as it has in the past.
"The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become," Obama said.
The president said his immigration principles also include tighter security at the border, crackdowns on businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants, and streamlined processes for foreign students, family members, and high-skilled workers, as well as what Obama called "a pathway to earned citizenship."
It was the first out-of-town trip of Obama's second term, and mirrors a tactic previously used by him and many predecessors: seeking to go over the heads of Congress and appeal directly to voters who can determine the political fate.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted that Tuesday's speech "'is just the beginning" of the president's efforts, and "he will rally the public to push for reform ASAP."
In his first term, Obama traveled the country in favor of such items as his health care bill and jobs plans. In the coming months, he is expected to make similar public appearances for a proposal to tackle gun violence, and perhaps to rally support in looming budget disputes with congressional Republicans.
"It rarely hurts you," said Eric Herzik, who chairs the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "It raises the issue, and he gets a hearing outside the bubble of Washington, D.C."
Meanwhile, a new non-profit organization called Organizing For Action, culled from Obama's 2012 campaign, is also planning to build support for the president's agenda, including gun control and a new immigration law.
Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, noted that Obama and his backers aren't the only ones out there seeking to mobilize voters on immigration and other issues. So are conservative groups, some of which say that immigration policy should focus strictly on border security and deportation, not citizenship.
It's battle that may be fought out on the airwaves, over the Internet, and through the media, as well as on the stump.
"We are seeing more groups pressuring Congress in more ways than we ever have historically," Green said.
While Obama tries to win people to his side on immigration, some Republicans are warning against one of the potential by-products of the "take it to the people" strategy: Excessive partisanship.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said there are "a lot of ideas" about how to fix the immigration system, and "we hope the President is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate."
Among the potential roadblocks to an immigration bill:
• House Republicans. GOP members are the majority in the U.S. House, which must sign off on any immigration bill. Many Republicans describe any pathway to citizenship as amnesty for lawbreakers.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told CNN she and other House Republicans want to see specific legislative language on any immigration plan. In the past, she said, "what we've learned is, if you grant amnesty, what do you get? More amnesty. More illegal entry."
• The rules of the road to citizenship: Backers of the Senate plan -- notably key Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential presidential candidate who is trying to sell an immigration bill to conservatives -- wants to tie the pathway to specific improvements in border security.
Obama has said he wants a clear pathway from the start, with no conditions.
• Same-sex couples. One of the goals of the Obama immigration plan is to prevent the splitting of families, some of whom are legal immigrants, and this includes same-sex couples.
The plan "treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner,' said a White House summary.
"The president has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the Republican authors of the bipartisan plan, told MSNBC that the issue of same sex couples is "not of paramount importance" to the overall bill, and could be a "red flag." McCain said immigration supporters "need to get broad consensus" on their proposal first.
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