WASHINGTON — Harsh words in Washington are revealing the tough political challenge when it comes to reforming America’s immigration system. A leaked Obama administration draft bill may have disrupted delicate, closed-door negotiations between Democratic and Republican lawmakers attempting to craft comprehensive bipartisan legislation.
What will become of more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States? An administration proposal leaked to a U.S. newspaper would establish a path to permanent legal residency - a gateway to eventual citizenship.
But Republican lawmakers are angry over the disclosure, accusing President Obama of preempting bipartisan efforts.
“By giving advantage to those who cut in front of the line for immigrants who come here legally, not dealing with border security adequately, that tells me he is looking for partisan advantage,” said Congressman Paul Ryan.
“Does the president want a result? Or does he want another cudgel [weapon] to beat up Republicans?,” said Senator John McCain
In fact, Obama had already put Capitol Hill on notice.
“If Congress cannot come up with a plan in a timely fashion, I will send up mine,” Obama said.
As lawmakers’ tempers flared, White House officials scrambled to respond.
“I hope that Republicans and Democrats up there do not get involved in some kind of typical Washington back-and-forth sideshow here and rather just roll up their sleeves and get to work,” said the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough.
Reform proponents say America has a rare opportunity to act. “For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it,” said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.
But opponents fear reform efforts will encourage more illegal immigration. Jim Gilchrist founded a citizens’ group that patrols America’s border with Mexico.
"If we are going to grant amnesty to 15- to 30-million people who are here illegally now, we are going to be granting amnesty to 300 million who will follow them over the next several decades," he said.
Yet analysts see an emerging consensus in Washington on immigration reform.
“There is agreement on the need for more border security. There is agreement on the need for mandatory employment verification. There is agreement on doing something with unauthorized immigrants and allowing them some level of legal status,” said Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.
But friction over the White House draft bill shows that change is far from assured.
“This [initiative] could blow up [fall apart] at any moment. I think this controversy over the leaked White House proposal and the very strong reaction from Republicans is just a sign of how high the stakes are and the fact that this will remain a very complicated and contentious process,” Mittelstadt said.
Obama has advocated immigration reform since taking office. Republicans have warmed to the initiative since last year’s presidential contest, which Mr. Obama won with strong support from Hispanic and Asian voters.