By Justin Sink and Meghashyam Mali - 03/25/13 04:17 PM EDT
President Obama used a naturalization ceremony at the White House on Monday to declare “the time has come” to move immigration reform through Congress.
Obama said he expects debate on an immigration bill to “begin next month” at a ceremony where 28 people, including 13 armed servicemembers, became citizens.
Bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate are moving closer to unveiling separate immigration reform proposals, and the president is hoping to build momentum for a deal.
Speaking from the East Room, Obama argued that immigration strengthens the country.
“It keeps us vibrant, it keeps us hungry, it keeps us prosperous. It is what makes us such a dynamic country,” he said. “If we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest, we've got to do a better job of welcoming them.”
Advocates for immigration reform see a real chance for legislation to pass Congress this year, despite opposition from some House GOP lawmakers, many of whom have said they will oppose measures that grant “amnesty” to illegal immigrants and have questioned proposed protections for gay or lesbian couples.
Immigration reform is a potent political issue for Obama, who won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. Since that showing, a growing number of conservative lawmakers have signaled they would back immigration reform, including measures to provide a pathway to citizenship.
Groups aligned with Obama have signaled their intention of pressuring Congress.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that Organizing for Action — the political group born from the president's reelection campaign — will launch a new online effort featuring the stories of some 7,000 supporters, some of whom entered the country illegally.
The Senate’s “Gang of Eight” introduced their framework, calling for a pathway to citizenship, heightened border security, increased high-skilled immigration and a guest worker program, in January.
But since then, senators have been tied down in negotiations over the details of the plan, with many key issues still unresolved.
Obama said he wanted to see debate begin on a congressional bill by April.
“We are making progress, but we've got to finish the job, because this issue is not new,” Obama said. “Everyone pretty much knows what's broken, everyone knows how to fix it.”
At a briefing later Monday with reporters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted that the White House did not hold the event over concern with the progress of negotiations.
"We are pleased with the progress they are reportedly making" in the Senate, Earnest said, adding that President Obama had been in touch with members of the Gang of Eight.
Earnest also dismissed criticism from freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who suggested over the weekend that Obama secretly hoped talks would fall through, so Democrats could gain a political wedge for the 2014 midterm elections.
"There's no evidence to support those claims," Earnest said.
A bipartisan House group has yet to share details of their proposals, but their work has already received general support from leaders in both parties.
Obama has held similar naturalization ceremonies at the White House in prior years.
In 2012, he marked the Fourth of July by helping to naturalize 25 active-duty servicemembers. That ceremony came weeks after Obama had issued an executive order allowing many illegal immigrants who were brought over to the U.S. as children to remain in the country and avoid deportation.
This story was updated at 2:22 p.m.