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Overhaul immigration laws now, Obama tells Congress

Ready to file own bill if efforts in Senate falter

With members of the House and Senate away on spring break, President Obama made his most substantive remarks on the difficult issue in more than a month.

AP/File

With members of the House and Senate away on spring break, President Obama made his most substantive remarks on the difficult issue in more than a month.

WASHINGTON — President Obama challenged Congress Monday to ‘‘finish the job’’ of passing legislation aimed at overhauling the nation’s immigration system.

With members of the House and Senate away on spring break, Obama made his most substantive remarks on the difficult issue in more than a month, saying he expects lawmakers to take up debate on a measure quickly and he hopes to sign it into law as soon as possible.

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‘‘We’ve known for years that our immigration system is broken,’’ the president said at a citizenship ceremony at the White House. ‘‘After avoiding the problem for years, the time has come to fix it once and for all.’’

The president spoke at a ceremony for 28 people from more than two dozen countries, including Afghanistan, China, and Mexico. Thirteen of the new citizens are active duty service members in the US military. The oath of allegiance was administered by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

“The time has come for comprehensive, sensible immigration reform,” Obama said. “We are making progress, but we’ve got to finish the job.”

While Obama has hosted citizenship ceremonies in previous years, Monday’s event was laced with politics, given the ongoing debate over immigration reform on Capitol Hill.

A bipartisan group of eight senators is close to finishing draft work on a bill that would dramatically reshape the US immigration and employment landscape, putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. The measure also would allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country.

The president applauded the congressional effort so far, but pressed lawmakers to wrap up their discussions quickly.

‘‘We’ve got a lot of white papers and studies,’’ Obama said. ‘‘We’ve just got to, at this point, work up the political courage to do what’s required.’’

Immigration shot to the forefront of Obama’s domestic agenda following the November election. Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate and overwhelmingly backed Obama, in part because of the tough stance on immigration that Republicans took during the campaign.

The election results spurred Republicans to tackle immigration reform for the first time since 2007 in an effort to increase the party’s appeal to Hispanics and keep the GOP competitive in national elections.

Obama and the bipartisan Senate group are in agreement on the key principles of a potential immigration bill, including a pathway to citizenship, strengthening the legal immigration system, and cracking down on businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

The White House has largely backed the Senate process but says it has its own immigration bill ready if the debate on Capitol Hill stalls.

Organizing for Action, the political advocacy group that grew out of Obama’s reelection campaign, is entering the debate this week with an online effort to highlight the personal stories of immigrants, The New York Times reported.

The group has collected 7,000 stories from supporters, some of whom entered the country illegally or were brought as young children by their parents. Organizers say they will distribute the stories using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

Officials of the group said the idea is to demonstrate support for efforts in Congress to overhaul immigration laws in ways that would provide 11 million illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship.

Starting early next month, Organizing for Action will move beyond the online effort to organize its supporters at events around the country. The events will run from April 1 to April 7, a week before the expected unveiling of the Senate immigration plan.

''It is clear that America’s immigration system is broken, with so many employers that game the system by hiring undocumented workers and 11 million people living in the shadows,’’ said Jon Carson, the executive director of Organizing for Action and a former director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. ‘‘Neither is good for the economy or the country.’’

Opponents of an immigration overhaul say they are counting on conservative activists to rise up in anger once the Senate legislation is unveiled. One group has said it will hold a two-day conference for conservative radio talk show hosts next month to encourage opposition to the legislation.

In 2007, the last time Congress considered an immigration overhaul, conservatives hammered lawmakers at town-hall-style meetings and on talk radio.

Proponents of the legislation eventually gave up.

The goal of Organizing for Action’s initiative is to counter any opposition by conservatives to the current legislative effort with support from around the country.

‘'Our supporters know it is time to fix the system that requires responsibility from everyone — both from the workers here that are undocumented and those who hire them — a system that guarantees that everyone is playing by the same rules,’’ Carson said.

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