Thorny Parts Delay Quick Action On Immigration Changes

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The effort to overhaul immigration laws continues in Washington, D.C. On Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the matter Tuesday, and scores of businesses and other interest groups sent representatives to the White House to meet with President Obama.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Passing major legislation in the United States is a little like solving a Rubik's cube. If you don't solve everything, you've solved nothing, and all the pieces have to come together in the exactly the right way.

GREENE: And the puzzle gets even harder in a time of brutal partisanship. The big question in Washington is whether that Rubik's cube moment has arrived for immigration law.

INSKEEP: It would be the first lawmakers have solved the puzzle in a quarter century. President Obama and top lawmakers are pressing for change, each for their own reasons.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is following the debate.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Previously, on immigration reform...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We can get this done.

SHAPIRO: In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators presented a plan. And the next day in Las Vegas...



SHAPIRO: President Obama offered his proposal. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group in the House was quietly working on its own plan. Now members of a House panel are adding their voice to the mix.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Today, we hold the first hearing of the Judiciary Committee in the 113th Congress.

SHAPIRO: So as the Senate, the president, and the House of Representatives try to come together, the biggest sticking point is how to handle more than 10 million people who are in the country illegally. The Senate and White House plans include a path to citizenship. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, though, it's a tough sell.

At yesterday's hearing, committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte described citizenship as an extreme option. Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama said it shouldn't even be part of this debate.


REPRESENTATIVE SPENCER BACHUS: I think we would agree on that that's a more toxic, contentious issue, granting full amnesty.

SHAPIRO: Still, the tone seemed less combative than past immigration debates have been. Many Republicans on the committee searched for what they described as a compromise between citizenship and deportation, something like permanent legal status.

But progressive and labor leaders say they're not going to budge. A group including Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO met with President Obama at the White House yesterday.

RICHARD TRUMKA: We have pretty broad consensus on what we want to do. And it starts around citizenship.

SHAPIRO: The activists seemed enthusiastic as they gathered on the White House driveway after the meeting.

Janet Murguia of La Raza described the president as very upbeat and confident about the prospects of a deal, with a real sense of urgency.

JANET MURGUIA: We turned a corner after the November elections, and we feel that we are moving from a position of strength.

SHAPIRO: In November's election, Obama carried almost three-quarters of Latinos. And so the president's supporters have every reason to push for citizenship. It could amount to millions of new Democratic voters. For the same reason, Republicans are wary. They don't want to give Democrats a political gift. At the same time, they don't want to further alienate Hispanic voters.


REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws.

SHAPIRO: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered what he described as a major policy speech yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute. It was an effort to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party. While Cantor did not endorse eventual citizenship for undocumented workers, he didn't rule it out, either.


CANTOR: We've got to balance respect for the rule of law, and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally - with care for the people and families - most of whom just want to make a better life and contribute to America.

SHAPIRO: There are some areas in this debate where the parties seem to agree. Everyone says border enforcement should be a top priority, and they all say the U.S. needs to make it easier for highly-skilled immigrants to stay and work here. Those provisions might be easy to pass on their own, but a comprehensive plan includes the thorny parts, too.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson says most business leaders are encouraging President Obama to tackle the whole thing at once. Sorenson supported Mitt Romney in the election, and he was one of a dozen CEOs who met with the president yesterday afternoon.

ARNE SORENSON: It's clear that immigration reform is an opportunity that really arises out of this last election. It would be great to see the political leaders from both sides seize that opportunity, grab it and pass something which is comprehensive.

SHAPIRO: There is undoubtedly movement in that direction, even if the path to that comprehensive bill is not yet clear.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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