Obama: For immigration reform, the "moment is now"

Updated: 3:51 p.m. ET

Hours before the Senate is poised to decide whether or not to take up legislation that would overhaul the nation's immigration system, President Obama delivered a forceful defense of the bill as a fair, bipartisan, common-sense fix to the nation's "broken" system, which would serve the nation's economy and undocumented immigrants alike.

"This week, the Senate will consider a common-sense, bipartisan bill that is the best chance we've had in years to fix our broken immigration system," said Mr. Obama, speaking from the East Room of the White House, surrounded by a group of law enforcement representatives, business and labor leaders, faith leaders, and Republican and Democratic elected officials who support the Senate legislation. "To truly deal with this issue Congress needs to act. And that moment is now."

The Senate held procedural votes and began a weeks-long debate on the legislation Tuesday afternoon. But while the bill was hammered out over a period of months by lawmakers of both parties, its fate rests in the hands of a bitterly divided Congress that has shown little ability in recent months to pass even the most so-called "common-sense" proposals.

The plan under discussion, which made it out of committee last month, creates a pathway to citizenship for the nation's approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, but only after certain border security improvements are initiated. Only those undocumented immigrants who are employed and have a clean criminal record would be granted legal status, and they would have to go to the back of the line until their status is granted, facing potential waits of 10 years or more. Meanwhile, border security would be strengthened, and the legal system governing the process would be modernized.

Among many Republicans, the border security measure is the biggest sticking point. Some say it's not strong enough, or that it would be difficult to enforce implementation.

Mr. Obama acknowledged the concerns over the issue in his remarks Tuesday morning, and stressed that, under his administration, "we made border security a top priority" and currently "have twice as many Border Patrol agents as we did in 2004."

"We have more boots on the ground along our southern border than at any time in our history. And in part by using technology more effectively, illegal crossings are near their lowest level in decades," Mr. Obama said. "Having put border security in place, having refocused on those who could do our communities harm, we also, then, took up the cause of the young DREAMers... who are brought to this country as children."

For other Republicans, the path to citizenship is the deal breaker.  Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, an outspoken opponent to the bill, blames the president and Senate Democrats for insisting on that provision and said Tuesday that will eventually lead to the bill's defeat.

"Of all of the issues swirling around this bill, the path to citizenship for those who are here illegally is the single most divisive issue," Cruz said.

"And that is the issue on which the Obama White House and Senate Democrats insist, and by insisting on that division I believe they by design destine this bill to be voted down."