WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama says the moment to reform the broken U.S. immigration system is now. The president spoke shortly before the Senate was to take its first votes on the legislation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate has voted to begin debate on a historic and contentious immigration bill that would offer an opportunity for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship.
Obama said overhauling America’s dysfunctional immigration system cannot wait.
“The system is still broken. And to truly deal with this issue, Congress needs to act. And that moment is now,” Obama said.
The legislation being considered would create a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people who are in the country illegally. It would also further strengthen security at the U.S.-Mexican border.
In addition, Obama said the legislation would make it easier for foreign students to stay in the United States. He said existing laws encourage people to study here, but to take their knowledge elsewhere.
“Once they have gotten the training they need to build a new invention or create a new business, our system too often tells them to go back home, so that other countries can reap the benefits, the new jobs, the new businesses, the new industries. That is not smart,” Obama said.
The president spoke in front of a group of law enforcement leaders, who endorsed the bill’s security provisions, and business and labor leaders, who said it would help the economy.
A top spokesman for American business, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, often criticizes Obama’s economic policies, but is backing the immigration bill.
“We disagree on a lot of things, but we vigorously agree on a bill that makes common sense and takes people out of the shadows, and provides for our economy the people we need to move forward,” Donohue said.
On the Senate floor, however, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said allowing more foreign workers to enter the United States would deprive American workers of jobs.
“This bill is going to allow more workers to come into this country than we have ever allowed before, at a time when unemployment is extraordinarily high, our ability to reduce unemployment is down, wages are down, and our workers are falling below the inflation rate in their wages for years,” Sessions said.
Many experts believe the legislation has a good chance of passing the Senate, but could face a tougher road in the House of Representatives.
But the top House Republican, Speaker John Boehner, told ABC television he thinks there is a good chance immigration reform can pass both houses and be signed into law by the end of the year.
The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative Xavier Becerra, told a Washington forum lawmakers may not get another chance to pass this bill.
“We have to make sure it is accountable, because the American public has made it very clear. We are not interested in going through this in another 10, 15 years. This better be a solution that fixes the broken system," Becerra said.
Senators in both parties are preparing amendments to the bill. The president said the compromise legislation is not perfect, and no one will get everything they want.