March 21, 2013 -- A top White House official is not concerned about the pace of work on immigration reform in the Senate, despite the fact that a group of lawmakers will miss a self-imposed deadline to put forth a bill.
Cecilia Muñoz, the White House's point person on immigration, said on Thursday that the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" continues to make progress and she expects them to introduce legislation in a matter of weeks. President Barack Obama has said that he would introduce his own immigration bill if talks grind to a halt in Congress, but Muñoz said now is not the time to do so.
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"We haven't set a firm date," Muñoz, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told ABC/Univision after a luncheon in Washington, D.C. "The good news is that the Gang of Eight seems to be making progress. We are engaged with them. We are encouraged by their progress."
Senators hashing out the immigration bill had initially set a goal of introducing a bill by late March. But lawmakers will head home for a two-week-long Easter recess on Friday, meaning that the earliest they could put forth a bill is early April.
That has caused some members of Congress to voice concern. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee tasked with handling the immigration bill, chided negotiators for their slow pace of work.
"Because we do not yet have legislative language to debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee will not be able to report a comprehensive immigration bill by the end of April, which was my goal," Leahy said on Wednesday.
And some groups that represent undocumented immigrants have grown restless with the pace of work in the Senate. A group of two-dozen immigrant activists on Thursday occupied the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leader of the "Gang of Eight," and several were arrested, the Washington Post reported.
But Muñoz said there is no cause for alarm, and reiterated that Obama would indeed put forth his own bill if the process in Congress falls apart.
"So far, it looks like things are progressing and we are eager to get to a markup as soon as possible," she said.
At the luncheon sponsored by the Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo Latino, Muñoz reiterated the White House priorities on immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Other priorities she mentioned included ensuring businesses cannot hire undocumented immigrants and streamlining the backlogged legal immigration system.
Muñoz explained that the White House has said little about the future flow of immigrants and a potential temporary worker program because it remains a contentious issue for both business, and labor groups, as well as politicians on both sides of the aisle. The administration wants to "make room for that conversation to take place," she said.
Both sides consider future immigration flow a crucial part of a final immigration reform bill. But after agreeing to a broad statement of principles, business and labor groups have been unable to come together on how many low-skilled worker visas would be granted under such a program, what industries would qualify and the type of worker protections that would be granted.
Muñoz would not offer specifics on what the White House wants, but she said they have a set of principles that need to be met.
"The goal here is to find a balance to make sure we are meeting our labor market needs and to make sure we are meeting the needs of not just the workers themselves who would be coming, but of American workers as well," she said. "We're hopeful we can find a mechanism to do that."