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Pres. Obama: ‘The Time Has Come to Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform’

By Morgan Korn

President Barack Obama laid out his ambitious agenda for the next four years Tuesday night, calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage, reform the nation’s tax code, tackle climate change and gun control and submit a budget proposal that responsibly addresses the nation’s fiscal situation. Whether or not these initiatives become law depends on whether Obama can convince Republicans to follow his economic and social policy roadmap. The president may have an easier job of building support for his plan to overhaul the country’s immigration laws. Republicans applauded loudly as Obama delivered his remarks on immigration during the State of the Union address.

Related: There's No Money for the President's Economic Proposals: Former CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin

“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” Obama said. “And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

Obama showed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform last night, says Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11. The president will push Congress to draft new immigration laws by this Spring, says Alden.

Last November’s presidential election could be the reason why Republicans have had a change of heart when it comes to immigration. Seventy-one percent of Latinos supported President Obama over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“Republicans were chastened by their losses in November and how poorly they did among Hispanic voters,” Alden notes. “There is a desire on both sides of the isle to move forward with this.”

The Republicans’ recent attitude shift toward immigration reform has made Alden optimistic that a deal will get done. But he argues that lawmakers need to change their approach to immigration reform. Focusing the nation’s resources on securing the U.S.-Mexico border should not be the center of new immigration policy, Alden says.

“The numbers of people trying to enter illegally are the lowest we’ve seen since the early 1970s,” he points out. “There are some parts of the border where [border] patrol agents are making 3 to 4 arrests a year. There’s just nobody coming across in those areas.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. government spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement in fiscal 2012 -- approximately 24% more than combined FY 2012 budgets of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Morever, immigration enforcement spending has totaled nearly $187 billion in the 26 years since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. There are also a larger number of individuals detained every year in the immigration detention system (just under 430,000 in fiscal 2011) than there are serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.

Related: The Dollars and Sense of Immigration Reform

“It’s not about spending more but about spending money wisely,” Alden says. “It’s about looking for problem areas on the border. It’s about doing a much better job of tracking people who overstay visas. Not just more fencing and more border patrol agents. We’ve done that for 20 years now."

Airtight U.S. borders are just one part of an immigration proposal promulgated by a bipartisan Senate group that includes Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

The group’s plan also requires the implementation of a strong employment verification system that employers would use to verify a worker’s immigration status. Undocumented workers would also have to pay back taxes and a fine before legalization would be approved. These demands should not deter undocumented workers for applying for citizenship, Alden says.

“The undocumented live every day in the fear of arrest and deportation,” he notes. “I think they will jump at that opportunity.”