President Obama said Wednesday he expects an immigration reform bill will be signed into law by year’s end, and possibly as early as June.
“I’m hopeful that this can get done, and I don’t think that it should take many, many months,” Obama said in an interview with Telemundo. “I think this is something we should be able to get done certainly this year and I’d like to see if we could get it done sooner, in the first half of the year if possible.”
Telemundo is the second-largest Spanish-language television network in the U.S. Obama also gave an interview Wednesday to Univision, the largest Spanish-language network in the nation.
“The issue here is not so much technical as it’s political,” Obama told Telemundo. “It’s a matter of Republicans and Democrats coming together and finding a meeting of the minds and then making the case.”
Republicans are motivated to act on immigration reform after Obama took more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been at the front of the reform push, hitting conservative airways in an attempt to allay the fears of some skeptical Republicans that the Senate’s recently unveiled deal is “amnesty” without border security.
Obama on Tuesday applauded progress made by the bipartisan group of senators who this week released agreed-upon principles that could serve as a framework for legislation. Many of the group’s principles mirror Obama’s, and politicians on both sides of the aisle appear to agree Congress faces its best opportunity to fix a broken immigration system since bipartisan efforts collapsed in 2006 and 2007.
Still, important differences remain.
While Obama and the Senate group both say they would strengthen border security, only the Senate group would make tougher border security a precondition to citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigrants — a key demand for Republicans.
Obama was pressed in the Telemundo interview about the high number of deportations under his administration. He said he makes “no apologies” for enforcing laws to “strengthen border security.”
Republicans also want an exhaustive path to citizenship that doesn’t allow illegal immigrants to leapfrog those who have already applied to enter the U.S. legally. This has been a primary concern for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Wednesday said illegal immigrants seeking citizenship should start in the queue behind those seeking work visas, not just those seeking green cards.
Some Hispanics worry that the process will be so punitive as to discourage illegal immigrants from working toward citizenship.
“You know, but it's going to be tough,” Obama told Telemundo. “They're going to have to pay a fine. They're going to have to pay back taxes. Background checks. You know, learning English. They've got to — they're going to have to, you know, work hard to achieve this incredible privilege of being a U.S. citizen.
"And it may take some time. But the point is there should be certainty for them that if they do these things they can achieve it. What we don't want is, I think, a vague promise that somewhere down the line maybe ... you may be able to achieve citizenship. We want to give people clarity about how they can move forward.”
Like Rubio, who said he would withdraw support from any immigration reform deal that extends federal healthcare benefits to provisionally legal U.S. residents, Paul said other government “welfare” was off the table.
The president on Wednesday said those seeking “provisional legal status” would not be eligible to be covered under his administration’s healthcare law until they were awarded citizenship.
“When we talk about providing people with a provisional legal status, assuming we get comprehensive immigration reform done, then, you know, they would not be entitled to the same subsidies, to obtain healthcare, for example, that a U.S. citizen is able to obtain.
"That doesn't mean that they can't get healthcare, for example. It means, for example, if they want to pay out of pocket they could still join an exchange. They could still participate. They would have the same ability to obtain health insurance as anybody else, but, you know, the way we've designed it, very low income persons are able to get tax credits in order to help to purchase insurance. That is something that we do for citizens. That's not something that we do for non-citizens.”
The president also wants an eventual law to treat same-sex partnerships the same as heterosexual marriages, a demand that will be difficult for Republicans to accept, but Obama didn’t address the matter in the interview.
Immigration has considerably more bipartisan support than gun control, which the president is also aggressively pursuing. In an interview with Univision on Wednesday, which has yet to be released, Obama said he was confident Congress could tackle both at the same time, according to a tweet from Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas.
“I mean what is absolutely true is that if you are just creating a bunch of pockets of gun laws without having sort of a unified, integrated system ... then it's going to be a lot harder for an individual community, a single community, to protect itself from this kind of gun violence,” Obama said in the Telemundo interview. “That's precisely why we think it's important for Congress to act. And remember that what we're looking for here has nothing to do with taking away people's guns, nobody's talking about somehow violating the Second Amendment.”