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As Obama Maps Immigration Reform, Opponents Brace For a Fight

As President Obama yesterday outlined his proposals for immigration reform and praised a bipartisan group of senators for their plan, there was growing conviction among other lawmakers that they will fight any efforts to pass major reform legislation — leading to hope and also skepticism down in Mexico that anything will change.

The president’s plans, outlined in a speech at a high school in Nevada, were not a surprise, containing most of the elements of a proposal he issued last year. They included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, tightening security on borders, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and temporarily issuing more visas to clear the overwhelming backlog of people applying for legal status in the country.

“Most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for way too long,” Obama said to an audience composed of about 2,000 high school students, many of them Hispanic.

But one of the features of the plan by the bipartisan group of senators was that the path to citizenship wouldn’t be triggered until the administration tightened border security.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the bipartisan group, told The New York Times he was “concerned by the president’s unwillingness to accept significant enforcement triggers before current undocumented immigrants can apply for a green card.”

“Without such triggers in place,” he said, “enforcement systems will never be implemented, and we will be back in just a few years dealing with millions of new undocumented people in our country.”

But in his speech yesterday, Obama defended his border security efforts, pointing out that illegal crossings had dropped 80 percent from their peak in 2000 because of increased patrols. In addition, six unmanned surveillance drones — technology whose increased use overseas the Obama administration has been attacked for — now fly over the Southwest border, in addition to 124 other aircraft.

Another potentially controversial part of the White House plan is to treat same-sex couples the same as other families, which would mean a person in a same-sex relationship would be able to use that relationship to obtain a visa.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, released a statement saying House Republicans “hope the president is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate.”

The opponents of immigration reform say the public shouldn’t be fooled by the appearance of so much momentum on the issue — they are going to put up a hardy fight.

“I certainly believe that Republicans need to do a better job of appealing to Hispanics,” Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas told NPR. “But I believe we will be best served and the country will be best served by appealing to them on economic grounds, rather than giving amnesty to millions of people in the country illegally.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s idea was to make life in the U.S. so uncomfortable for undocumented immigrants that they would “self-deport” and go back home — a view that many Republicans still believe is the right approach.

Bob Dane, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors immigration limits, pointed out to NPR  that net migration from Mexico has dwindled during the recession — which he believes is proof of the self-deport strategy.

“If you dry up the jobs magnet [through employment eligibility verification], that would solve the problem,” he says. “The economy will ultimately rebound, and if a major amnesty bill passes, it really will send a global message that America’s de facto immigration policy is occasional amnesty. People will stand in line and wait for the next round of amnesty.”

But the opponents of reform surely will be noting the results of a CBS poll released yesterday showing 51 percent of Americans now say they are in support of illegal immigrants being able to stay in the country and apply for citizenship — a substantial increase from the last poll in September 2011. An additional 20 percent of the poll respondents say they should be able to stay only as guest workers. Just 25 percent say they should be required to leave the country.

An estimated 60 percent of the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants are from Mexico, so it’s understandable why the issue is being followed so closely south of the border. But while Mexican officials told CNN that they were hopeful that meaningful reform is on the horizon, Mexicans on the streets sounded a skeptical note.

“It is possibly a waste of time. I don’t see it succeeding,” Luis Gonzalez, an accountant in Mexico City, said to CNN. “There is no compassion, and we need to work much more diplomatically.”

Nancy Perez, director of the Mexico-based immigrant rights organization Sin Fronteras (Without Borders), said past experience shows Mexicans shouldn’t pay too much attention to lofty statements about reform from U.S. politicians.

“These are the first steps,” she said, pointing out that the government’s actions will speak volumes.

“We find contradictions in the willingness expressed publicly and the concrete actions of the government,” she said, noting that deportations from the United States have increased in recent years.

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