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Senators give Obama a bipartisan plan on immigration

The president is encouraged, but healthcare politics could jeopardize the proposal.

March 12, 2010|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Washington — A pair of influential senators presented President Obama with a three-page blueprint for a bipartisan agreement to overhaul the nation's immigration system, but the proposal's viability is threatened by politics surrounding the healthcare debate.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in a 45-minute meeting Thursday in the Oval Office, also asked for Obama's help in rounding up enough Republican votes to pass an immigration bill this year.

Although details of their blueprint were not released, Graham said the elements included tougher border security, a program to admit temporary immigrant workers and a biometric Social Security card that would prevent people here illegally from getting jobs.

Graham also said the proposal included "a rational plan to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States." He did not elaborate on what the plan would be. But in a recent interview, he suggested that onerous measures were unrealistic.

"We're not going to mass-deport people and put them in jail, nor should we," Graham said. "But we need a system so they don't get an advantage over others for citizenship."

In a statement after the Obama meeting, Graham predicted that their effort would collapse if Senate Democrats proceeded with a strategy to pass a healthcare bill through a simple majority vote -- a process known as "reconciliation." Senate leaders say they are committed to doing just that.

"I expressed, in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if healthcare reconciliation goes forward," said Graham, who portrayed the document handed to Obama as "a work in progress."

Graham added: "For more than a year, healthcare has sucked most of the energy out of the room. Using reconciliation to push healthcare through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration."

In their own statements, Obama and Schumer sounded more upbeat.

The president said: "Today I met with Sens. Schumer and Graham and was pleased to learn of their progress in forging a proposal to fix our broken immigration system. I look forward to reviewing their promising framework, and every American should applaud their efforts to reach across party lines and find common sense answers to one of our most vexing problems."

Immigration has gotten scant attention of late. Obama had initially promised to address the issue in his first year, but the deadline slipped as he struggled to pass a healthcare bill. Latino voters, who were a crucial piece of Obama's winning coalition in the 2008 campaign, have grown impatient. Some advocates of an immigration overhaul warn that Latino voters will stay home in the November mid-term elections if the issue is delayed again.

In an attempt to defuse the anger, Obama met with a group of 14 immigration advocates in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, hours before his meeting with the two senators.

Afterward, some of the guests described the atmosphere in the room as tense. They said they told Obama that families were being severed by widespread deportations. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the U.S. deported 388,000 illegal immigrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security -- up from 369,000 the year before.

"I don't think the president liked hearing that the immigration system is tearing apart families. But that's our reality," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who attended the meeting.

Obama agreed to have them meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to discuss deportation policies, the White House said.

Even without the healthcare obstacle, passing an immigration bill would be difficult. Schumer has been trying to line up additional Republican co-sponsors in hopes of broadening the bill's bipartisan support. None has signed up.

Those who attended the meeting said that Obama committed to helping find Republican votes. But he also conceded that in a polarized Senate, that was a difficult mission.

"He was very frank about the challenge of moving this or anything else in the U.S. Congress," said John Wilhelm, president of the labor union Unite Here.

peter.nicholas@

latimes.com

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