Obama calls on House GOP to pass immigration reform

Accepts piecemeal approach to reform as he confronts hecklers over his deportation policy

Barack Obama speaking at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center, Nov. 25, 2013, in San Francisco.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama invoked the spirit of Thanksgiving on Monday as he urged House Republicans to back an immigration deal, saying he accepts chopping comprehensive reform approved by the Senate into pieces if that helps pass legislation.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” he told a crowd gathered in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “We can carve that bill into multiple pieces.

Obama was referring to a sweeping immigration-reform bill approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate in June. The Senate measure would permit undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary legal status within six months and to apply for U.S. citizenship in 13 years. It would also double the number of Border Patrol agents, from 20,000 to 40,000, and allocate billions of dollars to enhanced surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But House Republicans have refused to back the Senate bill. House conservatives are adamantly opposed to any measure that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. They say it amounts to amnesty. House Speaker John Boehner has said he wants to take a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, and he recently ruled out the possibility of a House vote on immigration this year.

Despite Obama’s concession to Republicans on Monday, the president said a House immigration deal must include certain elements, including a path to legal status and eventually citizenship.

“If they want to chop that thing up in five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like,” Obama said. “Don’t let the minority of folks block something the country desperately needs. If we don’t tackle this now, then we’re undercutting our future.”

In a dramatic pause, Obama’s speech was interrupted by hecklers who implored him to stop deportations. “Stop deportations — yes we can,” a small group of protesters shouted. The president stopped Secret Service agents from removing the protesters.

“I respect the passion of these young people” Obama said. “But we’re a nation of laws. That’s our tradition.”

The Obama administration announced last week that it would stop deporting family members of U.S. military personnel. The order gives the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials the power to “parole in place” immigrant spouses, children and parents of current U.S. service members, reservists and veterans. Those immigrants may apply to live legally in the United States.

Nonetheless, immigration advocates have assailed Obama’s deportation policy, which is intended to deport only the most serious criminals. They say an overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants are deported for nonviolent offenses like minor traffic violations. Immigration proponents also point out that Obama has presided over more than 2 million deportations — more than any other president.

Obama’s speech comes as a poll released on Monday showed that 63 percent of Americans supported a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The survey, by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, highlights that there is little variation along party lines. Sixty percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Independents and 73 percent of Democrats polled favored citizenship.

The study also found consistency in support for immigration reform across several states. Respondents in Ohio, Florida and Arizona, for example, favored reform by 60 percent, 61 percent and 64 percent, respectively. And compared with earlier this year, respondents were more likely to say that the U.S. immigration system is broken. Thirty-four percent of those polled say the system is completely broken or mostly broken, versus 23 percent who voiced the same opinion in March 2013.

“Despite the ups and downs of the prospects for immigration reform in Congress, public support for a path to citizenship has remained rock steady throughout 2013,” said Robert P. Jones, the institute’s CEO, in a press release. “Immigration reform remains one of those rare issues that largely transcends political and religious divisions.”

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