President Barack Obama took advantage of his bully pulpit Tuesday, delivering a speech in Las Vegas throwing his support behind comprehensive immigration reform, a cause he pushed for throughout his fall presidential campaign, and which appears to finally have bipartisan support.
The president detailed an economic and personal case for immigration reform and cautioned lawmakers that if they do not move forward he will send them a bill of his own to force their hand.
"If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away," Obama said.
But for now, the president was content to praise the efforts of a bipartisan Senate group announced Monday and made the public case for "commonsense" legislation.
"We have to make sure that every business and every worker in America is playing by the same rules," he said, noting that there are an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. "We have to bring this shadow economy into the light so that everybody's held accountable. Businesses for who they hire and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law," he said.
Members of both the business and labor communities have united in support for the broad principles laid out by Obama and the bipartisan Senate group, acknowledging that the current system is unfair to both undocumented workers and businesses who play by different sets of rules – those willing to break the law and those who aren't.
Obama also fleshed out his vision of a path of "earned citizenship" for those already in the United States illegally, a potentially politically perilous subject.
"We've got to lay out a path, a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English and then going to the back of the line behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally," he said. "It won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process and it will lift these individuals out of the shadows and give them a chance to earn their way to a green card and eventually to citizenship."
Republicans have long been loath to embrace such a path, labeling it "amnesty" and rejecting it on the grounds that it would ignore the rule of law and encourage more illegal immigration.
But the bipartisan Senate group, which includes Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, both popular conservatives, outlined a similar proposal and will press for some sort of path as well.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner did not immediately reject the president's proposal out of hand, in a statement issued shortly after the president's speech.
"There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system," said Brendan Buck, Boehner's spokesman, in an E-mailed release. "Any solution should be a bipartisan one, 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."
Obama also highlighted efforts his administration has made to add more border security and ramp up deportations of illegal immigrants who have committed crimes and pledged to do even more on that front.
"That's what comprehensive immigration reform looks like - smarter enforcement, a pathway to earned citizenship, improvements in the legal immigration system so that we continue to be a magnet for the best and the brightest all-around the world," he said.
The president concluded his address predicting that the immigration debate would get more heated but expressed confidence in achieving his goal.
"The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become," he said. "I believe we are finally at a moment where comprehensive immigration reform is in our grasp. Remember this isn't just a debate about policy, it's about people."