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President Obama back at forefront of immigration debate

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 3:01 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama watches as as the oath is administered at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members and civilians, Monday, March 25, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — After ceding immigration negotiations to Congress, President Barack Obama is stepping to the forefront of the debate this week, using television interviews and White House events to gently prod lawmakers to finish work on a bill that would overhaul the nation's immigration system.

But wary of tripping up delicate bipartisan talks, Obama is largely avoiding the prickly policy issues that remain unresolved, including a new low-skilled worker program that has split business and labor. The White House prefers to leave those details to lawmakers, calculating that a bill crafted by Capitol Hill stands a better chance of winning Republican support than one overtly influenced by the president.

"We're pleased that they're making progress," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of the "Gang of Eight" senators who appear to be on the cusp of finalizing a draft bill. "We'll reserve judgment on the product of those discussions until it's produced."

Obama is expected to stake out a similar position during interviews Wednesday with two Spanish-language television networks, Univision and Telemundo. The interviews follow a citizenship ceremony conducted Monday at the White House in which the president encouraged Congress to "finish the job" on immigration reform, an issue that has been stalled in Washington for years.

The president made little progress in overhauling the nation's fractured immigration laws in his first term, but he redoubled his efforts after winning re-election. The November contest also spurred some Republicans to drop their opposition to immigration reform, given that Hispanics overwhelmingly backed Obama.

In an effort to keep Republicans at the negotiation table, Obama has publicly taken a backseat on one of his top second-term priorities. He rolled out his immigration principles during a January rally in Las Vegas and made an impassioned call for overhauling the nation's laws during his early February State of the Union address, then purposely handed off the effort to lawmakers.

The president has, however, privately called members of the Senate working group, and the administration is providing technical support to the lawmakers. The Gang of Eight is expected to unveil its draft bill when Congress returns from a two-week recess the week of April 8.

Obama and the Senate group are in agreement on some core principles, including a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, revamping the legal immigration system and holding businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally.

But they're at odds over key issues. The Senate group wants the citizenship pathway to be contingent on securing the border, something Obama opposes. The president has also sidestepped the contentious guest-worker issue, which contributed to derailing immigration talks in 2007.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have reached significant agreements on a new visa program that would bring up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers to the country each year. But they reached a stalemate Friday over wages for the workers, with the labor union pushing for higher wages than the chamber has agreed to so far.

Since then, talks have resumed and negotiators are "back on the right track," Ana Avendano, a lead AFL-CIO negotiator, said Wednesday.

Avendano declined to offer specifics but said the chamber had moved off what she termed its insistence on "poverty-level wages" for the new workers.

"We're very hopeful that we're moving," Avendano told reporters after a briefing for congressional staff on temporary-worker programs.

While Obama tries to keep the pressure on lawmakers this week, four members of the Senate immigration group toured Arizona's border with Mexico to inspect the conditions there. Arizona's Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake were joined by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado for the border tour.

Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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