How fitting it is that the day after President Obama delivered his first speech devoted entirely to the issue of immigration reform, 150 people are being sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens on Ellis Island. In an address at American University, President Obama vowed not to “kick the can down the road” on immigration reform, restating his desire to fix a broken immigration system.
In his speech, the President asserted the need for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people currently residing in the U.S. who do not have legal status, while stressing that the U.S. government secures the border, and businesses face consequences for hiring undocumented workers and keeping wages depressed. Calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive plan to fix an immigration system that is “fundamentally broken,” President Obama tackled the issue that has been the subject of contentious political debate in these months leading up to the mid-term November elections. He spoke about the “…estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States” and said that “the overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children.” The President cautioned against rounding up and deporting the undocumented immigrants that are an intrinsic part of American society and economy, and against a blanket amnesty for all that he said would be “unwise and unfair…would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision,” and “could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration. ” Instead, he advocated for a solution that eschewed both polar extremes of the debate in favor of rational middle ground. He said-
Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship. And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable. Now, if the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation -– because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric. Now, once we get past the two poles of this debate, it becomes possible to shape a practical, common-sense approach that reflects our heritage and our values.
This speech was influenced by a number of recent developments in the immigration issue. Most notably, Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law that has set a precedent for states around the country taking the enforcement of immigration law into their own hands. Since April 23rd, when Arizona Gov. Brewer signed off on the law, its unconstitutional statutes that give a green light to racial profiling, have catapulted the immigration issue and the Federal government’s inaction on it, into center stage. The controversial “show me your papers” law, which is currently under review by the Department of Justice, has “fanned the flames of an already contentious debate,” Mr. Obama said. President Obama acknowledged the frustration that has led to Arizona and the 20 other states that are in the process of implementing similar laws as “understandable,” but stated that it was “ill- conceived” and that it “put huge pressure on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable.” Referring to the police chiefs that have stood in opposition to SB1070, he said that laws such as these make communities less safe by “driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult.” He criticized this “patchwork of local immigration laws” for having “the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning because of what they look like or how they sound.”
In his undeniably political speech, President Obama stressed the necessity for bipartisan support for immigration reform. He took Republicans to task for the lack of movement on immigration reform in Congress, specifically calling out the 11 Republicans Senators who had shown support for a comprehensive reform bill in 2006, and subsequently withdrawn this support, with the Republican party now unanimously calling for a “border security first” approach and balking at a comprehensive reform bill. Obama argued that the process has been “held hostage” by “political posturing, special-interest wrangling and . . . the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.” Referring to his recent b0lstering of border security by sending 1200 troops to the border, he said that the border was now more secure than it had been in 20 years, and that crime along the border was at a record low. Moreover, he dismissed the “border security first” approach saying that the systemic problems were too vast to be fixed with “only fences and border patrols.”
The President’s speech has been criticized for offering no “new solutions, timetables or points of compromise. Instead, he outlined a longstanding prescription for change that, in addition to having no support from Republicans in Congress, also has failed to unite his fellow Democrats.”
And even as President Obama waits for bipartisan consensus on immigration reform, families continue to be torn apart, immigrant youth live in fear of being deported, violations in detention continue to grow and local and state police armed with immigration powers bring fear to communities. Many of these problems can be tackled be administrative measures, but there was little spoken of in the speech. No action was pledged on any of the bills already in Congress though he did mention support for the DREAM Act that would give undocumented students a chance to live in the U.S. And even with a forum for an announcement on whether the federal government is going to sue the state of Arizona, no mention was made on the issue. Many groups have decided to take action into their own hands.
Following on the heels of President Obama’s address, leading law enforcement officials shared their concerns about programs that require enforcement of immigration laws by state or local law police, a trend that continues in absence of a federal solution. With the country’s foremost police chiefs and sheriffs speaking out against such enforcement that undo decades of progress in community policing, Presente.org in collaboration with the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Trail of DREAMs is launching an ambitious new campaign calling on the President to use his power to create real change, starting with ending the deeply problematic 287g program.
Reform Immigration for America is asking people to write to Senate Republicans, asking them to”stop holding up the process and hurting families” America’s Voice is asking people to support the DREAM Act, “a stepping-stone to broader reform that we can pass right now” to support “youth who would qualify to earn citizenship under the DREAM Act who are future valedictorians, nurses, computer programmers, and soldiers.”
And Restore Fairness is calling on President Obama and Members of Congress to fix the broken detention and deportation system that traumatizes families and has led to many human rights violations.
While we are encouraged by the President’s speech and commitment to the issue of immigration, and reminded of our nation’s proud immigrant heritage, there is a deep need for bipartisan action as peoples lives hang in the balance.
Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com