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Though immigration reform tops his legislative to-do list for his second term, President Obama was cautious in a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday in support of the Senate’s proposed comprehensive immigration reform plan. By supporting the broad outline of the plan without being too explicit about the policies he’d like to see in the bill, the president said the foundations for reform are in place and have been accepted by Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Republicans like George W. Bush.

But the president did have a threat for Congress. He said if the debate goes on too long, he will send down a bill that explicitly lays out his plan for reform.

His principles include strengthening the borders, enforcement that cracks down on businesses that hire undocumented workers, a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country and an update to the legal system that speeds up immigration for skilled workers and separated families.

The so-called “Gang of 8” in the Senate, made up equally of Republicans and Democrats, rushed to get their framework out Monday before the president, to give Republicans a chance to sell the plan to conservative media.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared on Fox News’ Hannity on Monday evening and The Rush Limbaugh Show on Tuesday afternoon to assure Republicans that strict border enforcement must be a requirement in the deal before any immigrants are granted citizenship. Rubio was warmly embraced as Limbaugh set up the predicate for blaming the president if the plan fails.

Republican calls to secure the border continue even though President Obama deported more undocumented immigrants in his first term than George W. Bush did in both of his combined, making the border more secure than it has been in decades.

The president agrees with most of the Gang of 8 framework, except on two crucial points. He opposes any “trigger” that would hold up the path to citizenship until certain criteria are met, and he also believes reform should treat same-sex families as… families.

“The time has come for common-sense comprehensive immigration reform,” the president said to open his speech, sparking a chant of “Sí se puede!” in the crowd.

He noted that 1 in 4 new businesses were started by immigrants, as well 1 in 4 tech startups.

The president described the current population of 11 million undocumented immigrants as “living in the shadows.” This creates a shadow economy where both the businesses and workers who are trying to the right thing suffer. “We have to make sure every business and every worker is playing by the same rules,” he said.

Addressing concerns about securing the border, he said, “Today illegal crossings are down nearly 80 percent.”

The crowd erupted when the president mentioned his policy of focusing deportation proceedings on criminals, while temporarily delaying any deportation of young people who would eligible for citizenship under the DREAM Act.

The president predicted that as the bill gets closer to passing, emotions will rise.

“This has always been an issue that inflames passions,” he said, then reminded the crowd that nearly all Americans are the descendants of immigrants. “All those folks, before they were ‘us,’ they were ‘them.'”

“Remember,” he went on, “this is not just debate about policy. It’s about people.”

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka lauded the president’s speech.

“In a phrase, President Obama ‘gets it’ – he gets that a rising tide lifts all boats and that empowering immigrant workers is a win for all working people,” Trumka said in a statement. “The president clearly shares the AFL-CIO’s commitment to a viable pathway to citizenship, meaning that seemingly innocuous conditions cannot be allowed to get in the way of a roadmap for citizenship that encompasses the dreams of 11 million people.”

Photo credit: AP Photo/David Becker

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