President Obama Urges Action on Immigration Reform

Interest in immigration policy seems to wax and wane as the political seasons change: it was a big issue in the 2008 elections, and once again during the mid-terms last fall, but otherwise has been ignored – for the most part – by Congress and the White House. Immigration reform has been deadlocked in Congress since before the mid-term elections, when GOP Senator Lindsey Graham withdrew from a bipartisan effort to forge a consensus bill on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). That was April 2010. Since then, state legislatures have seized the initiative from Congress, passing their own local concoctions in an effort to remedy the nation’s immigration problems.

The President remained on the sidelines, too, until recently, when he spoke out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, during a stopover in El Salvador, on a swing through Latin America. This was followed by a photo op with prominent Latino Americans, an immigration policy meeting attended by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg, and a White House conclave between the President and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

To be fair, the President’s earlier inaction on CIR was not entirely his fault. In its first two years, the Obama administration was beset by pressing economic and foreign policy concerns that all but pushed CIR off the presidential agenda. Now, with the U.S. economy slowly improving, and a major foreign policy victory under his belt, President Obama is using the bully pulpit to demand Congressional action on CIR. Last week, the President gave a major policy speech on immigration, before a lively crowd of supporters at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas. (See Remarks by the President on Comprehensive Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, White House Press Office, 10.May.2011.)

The speech was intended to highlight Mr. Obama’s commitment to CIR, and to spur Congress into action on this issue. Also, it appeared to be designed to shore up the President’s support among his Latino supporters – some of whom have assailed his immigration enforcement policies, upset about the record number of deportations his administration has racked up in the past couple of years.

At the outset, the President noted that, throughout its history, America has benefitted from the hard work, talents – genius, even – of immigrants from around the world. We need to keep the doors open, he said, because immigrants have made the country “stronger and more prosperous.” Mr. Obama acknowledged, though, that our current immigration system is broken, and that something must be done about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in our midst. This is both a moral imperative, he said, as well as an economic one; the current system leads to exploitation of immigrants, and undermines middle class people who play by the rules:

“…because undocumented immigrants live in the shadows, where they’re vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses that skirt taxes, and pay workers less than the minimum wage, or cut corners with health and safety laws, this puts companies who follow the rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime or just a safe place to work, it puts those businesses at a disadvantage. […]

“So one way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else.”

Fixing our immigration system is also critical to our economic competitiveness, Mr. Obama noted, arguing for a system that attracts more talented entrepreneurs to our shores, and retains more of the foreign science and technology graduates who study at American universities, only to return home with their cutting-edge skills:

“Look at Intel, look at Google, look at Yahoo, look at eBay. All those great American companies, all the jobs they’ve created, everything that has helped us take leadership in the high-tech industry, every one of those was founded by, guess who, an immigrant. So we don’t want the next Intel or the next Google to be created in China or India. We want those companies and jobs to take root here.”

Obama praised his administration’s efforts to make the southwestern border more secure, pointing out that “we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history.” The crux of Obama’s argument was that his administration has given the GOP everything it asked for and more: a secure border, one that is dramatically less violent and dangerous than his Congressional critics have complained about. According to the President, “The most significant step we can now take to secure the borders is to fix the system as a whole so that fewer people have the incentive to enter illegally in search of work in the first place.” The question, said Mr. Obama, is “whether those in Congress who previously walked away in the name of enforcement are now ready to come back to the table and finish the work that we’ve started.”

The President hopes these recalcitrant members of Congress will have no choice, and pointed to an emerging consensus that the lack of immigration reform is hurting our businesses and communities. Comprehensive immigration reform should have at least four ingredients, Mr. Obama argued:

“First, we know that government has a threshold responsibility to secure our borders and enforce the law. And that’s what [DHS Secretary] Janet [Napolitano] and all her folks are doing…

“Second, businesses have to be held accountable if they exploit undocumented workers.

“Third, those who are here illegally, they have a responsibility as well. So they broke the law, and that means they’ve got to pay their taxes, they’ve got to pay a fine, they’ve got to learn English. And they’ve got to undergo background checks and a lengthy process before they get in line for legalization. That’s not too much to ask.

“And fourth, stopping illegal immigration also depends on reforming our outdated system of legal immigration. We should make it easier for the best and brightest to not only stay here, but also to start businesses and create jobs here. In recent years, a full 25 percent of high-tech startups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants. That led to 200,000 jobs here in America. I’m glad those jobs are here. I want to see more of them created in our country. We need to provide them the chance. We need to provide our farms a legal way to hire workers that they rely on, and a path for those workers to earn legal status. And our laws should respect families following the rules – reuniting them more quickly instead of splitting them apart. And we should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents. We should stop denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military.”

The President pledged to do his part to “lead a constructive and civil debate on these issues,” but emphasized that he cannot do this alone – “…this change ultimately has to be driven by you, the American people. You’ve got to help push for comprehensive reform….”

The speech was artful at positioning the President as an honest broker between the American people and their Congressional representatives, but the subtext came through loud and clear: if CIR doesn’t happen, don’t blame President Obama. It remains to be seen whether the President will intensify his efforts to get CIR through Congress, or merely fight a war of words, mostly in the hope of placating his Latino supporters and other members of his Democratic base. Time will tell.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.