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Obama to harness immigration reform momentum

Immigrants take part in a naturalization ceremony at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services on January 28, 2013
Immigrants take part in a naturalization ceremony at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services in New Jersey on January 28, 2013. President Barack Obama heads to Las Vegas Tuesday to begin to mobilize the US public behind a comprehensive immigration ref

President Barack Obama heads to Las Vegas Tuesday to begin to mobilize the US public behind a comprehensive immigration reform drive that could provide a glittering second-term legacy achievement.

Treacherous immigration politics dashed similar efforts under president George W. Bush, but the rising muscle of Hispanic voters has shifted political calculations and created the most favorable climate for reform in years.

The goal is to offer 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship while strengthening border security and finding a way to keep high-flying foreign graduates of US colleges in the country to catalyze economic growth.

Obama repeatedly promised during his first term to push immigration reform, but successfully laid the blame for inertia on the Republican Party, which paid a heavy price as Hispanic voters flocked to the president last November.

President Barack Obama is pictured during a meeting at the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2013
President Barack Obama is pictured during a meeting at the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2013. Obama repeatedly promised during his first term to push immigration reform, but successfully laid the blame for inertia on the Republican Party.

Now, fearing the prospect of entering another presidential election in 2016 viewed as pariahs among Latino voters, key Senate Republicans have signed on to a bipartisan effort to forge comprehensive reform.

Senior Obama aides believe that immigration reform may prove a rare example of an issue in toxic Washington where both parties can chalk up a political victory by helping each other out.

Some top Republicans agree, including Senator John McCain, a onetime advocate of comprehensive reform who stepped back when courting conservatives opposed to "amnesty" during his 2008 presidential campaign.

"The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," McCain, a member of the cross-party Senate group, said Monday.

John McCain (L) and Chuck Schumer attend a press conference on immigration reforms in Washington DC on January 28, 2013
Republican Senator John McCain (L) and Demoratic Senator from Chuck Schumer speak during a press conference on immigration reforms in Washington DC on January 28, 2013.

"We realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue."

White House officials believe that Obama has proven most effective when he is out in the country shaping public opinion rather than being bogged down in the hyper-partisan gridlock of the US capital.

Hence the president's trip to gambling paradise Las Vegas, where heavy Hispanic support helped him win the key swing state of Nevada over Republican Mitt Romney in November, on the way back to the White House.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama wanted to "continue a conversation with the American people about how we need to move forward and why we need to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform."

Immigrants attend naturalization ceremonies at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services on January 28, 2013
Immigrants attend naturalization ceremonies at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services on January 28, 2013. The rising muscle of Hispanic voters has shifted political calculations and created the most favorable climate for immigration reform in years.

"It is something that he has spoken about quite frequently since his re-election and made clear his commitment to act on this early in his second term. It's now the second week of his second term, and he is acting on it."

Obama is not expected to unveil specifics or significant new proposals on immigration reform, but will revive a set of principles he laid down in 2011, which are similar to the framework that was dashed in 2007 in Congress.

Senior Obama aides say that given intense work six years ago, and in Obama's first term, the parameters of reform have long been clear -- what has been lacking is significant bipartisan support necessary for successful action.

They also argue that Obama's frequent statements on immigration reform and strong performance among Hispanics partly explain the changed political winds.

In a sign of that change, the Senate plan was backed by Marco Rubio, a Cuban American and rising Republican star seen as a possible 2016 White House hopeful, who has a clear interest in winning Hispanics back to his party.

The plan unveiled Monday in the Senate would provide a "tough but fair" pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, once strengthened border security benchmarks have been met.

It includes a strengthened employment verification system, improved skill-based immigration, better visa enforcement, and deportation for serious criminals.

Despite the optimism Monday, huge obstacles for reform still remain.

Republican Speaker John Boehner's office issued a non-committal statement, in the knowledge that a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants could be a tough sell for his conservative caucus.

In the Senate, Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell, who has the power to stall legislation, signaled he would oppose any effort to swiftly jam immigration reform through the Senate on a fast track.

Still, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said he believed a deal could be struck within months, with advocates hoping the bill could be on Obama's desk by August.

"For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it," Schumer said.