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President Obama gives immigration reform a boost on Independence Day weekend

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

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Obama to meet with Schumer, Graham amidst calls for concrete action on immigration

Guest Blogger: Jackie Mahendra reposted from America’s Voice blog

Over the weekend, news broke that the President intends to meet with Senators Schumer and Graham this evening at the White House:

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to focus attention on immigration next week by meeting at the White House with two senators crafting a bill on the issue. White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said Obama will meet with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Monday.

The president is “looking forward to hearing more about their efforts toward producing a bipartisan bill,” Shapiro said Friday.

So are a lot of people, it looks like. The news generated 9,026 comments on The Huffington Post (it was the front page story for a time on Saturday), and has come amidst growing pressure on the administration to show concrete progress on immigration reform in advance of the upcoming “March for America: Change Takes Courage” in Washington, D.C. on March 21st.

Momentum is building rapidly for the march. Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Reform, writes:

Today, a caravan of faith leaders, day laborers and others is leaving from Phoenix, Arizona. Greeted by crowds of up to a 1,000 in places like Houston and New Orleans, this caravan will grow to dozens of vehicles and hundreds of people to arrive in DC on March 21st.

In Michigan, Ohio, California, Wisconsin and states across the country, communities are raising money and organizing buses to bring African American workers, small business owners, immigrant families and others to Washington DC on March 21st.

These communities on the move will meet in Washington DC to joins tens of thousands of Americans to March FOR America on Sunday, March 21, 2010, and remind our elected leaders that Change Takes Courage.

Indeed, tens of thousands of people will be marching to Washington to stand up for that vision of change– for crafting an immigration system that is once again rooted in America’s most deeply-held values of fairness, dignity, and hard work. Clarissa Martinez, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the nation’s leading Latino advocacy organization, NCLR, argues that the President must help move the process forward after tonight’s meeting:

But let’s be clear. If the meeting is just to “hear more,” it’s not going to cut it. The president had a meeting with Republican and Democratic members of both chambers in June 2009, and in August held a White House summit, hosted by Secretary Janet Napolitano, with a large number of representatives from faith, labor, business, law enforcement, immigrant, ethnic, and civil rights groups. Around that time, Schumer and Graham started working on a bipartisan proposal, and Schumer announced he would have the parameters of a proposal ready by Labor Day 2009.

With the Congressional legislative runway getting crowded and time running out before the November elections, it is time to land this plane. Monday’s meeting must be followed by a clear, bipartisan proposal and a firm timeline for Senate action. Anything less will be regarded as more stalling by the tens of thousands coming to DC to march in two weeks.

In case you missed this new video from NCLR, a reminder of the President’s own promise and stated vision to reform immigration:

“They’re counting us to rise above fear, the demagoguery, the pettiness, the partisanship, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform… In this country, change does not come from the top down. Change comes from the bottom up.”

Even the pundits are realizing the importance of passing immigration reform. One of D.C.’s insiders, who often sets the conventional wisdom in this city, Jonathan Alter, told the NY Times that Democrats could revitalize their base by moving immigration reform:

There are other things Democrats can do to energize the base. Bringing up immigration reform, Mr. Alter says, tends to draw  Hispanic voters  on their behalf.

Indeed, a new report on Latino voters in the 2010 elections, released last month by America’s Voice, shows the opportunities and perils for both parties if they fail to enact immigration reform.

And as Douglas Rivlin, blogger with News Junkie Post argued yesterday, immigration reform is not only a top priority for Latinos, but for groups like Irish Americans as well:

With millions of Irish immigrants in the U.S. – and tens of thousands undocumented – the Irish are stepping up and engaging seriously in the immigration reform debate. [...]

… Ciaran Staunton, co-founder and President of ILIR is traveling to Denver, Phoenix, and Tucson to send the message that “Immigration reform is as important to the Irish American community as it is to any other community,” according to ILIR’s press release.

The fact remains that a stunning majority of Americans prefer a comprehensive immigration overhaul to both doing nothing about our immigration crisis and to deportation-only immigration proposals, which do little to truly fix our broken system.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the time for immigration reform is indeed now.

Progressive bloggers and advocates set the stage for immigration reform in 2010

Next Up, Comprehensive Immigration Reform “Not the usual suspects-” This is how Nico Pitney, National Editor for the Huffington Post and moderator on a panel discussion about the prospect of immigration reform, introduced his fellow panelists. Organized by the Center for American Progress, Netroots Nation, and America’s Voice, the panel featured some of the leading voices for comprehensive and just immigration reform, including Markos Zúñiga, founder and editor of Daily Kos, Andrea Nill, immigration blogger for Think Progress, and María Elena Durazo from the AFL-CIO.

Using the context of Rep. Luis Gutierrez‘s progressive CIR ASAP immigration reform bill introduced in mid December, the recent election of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts (and the obvious question of how this will affect the progressive agenda including immigration reform), President Obama’s campaign promise to address immigration reform with his election, a lively discussion ensued on what makes the present time ripe for the passage of immigration reform legislation. Unlike the harsh and divisive debates of failed reform in 2007, the overall outlook amongst the panelists was positive, as they approached the topic from the point of view of electoral vote politics, the economy, and the labor movement.

Using Rep. Gutierrez’s bill as a solid base, Andrea Nill began by clarifying the fundamentals of Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would include,

An earned path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, including registering with the government, a background check, paying taxes, and ensuring their integration into society.

Creating flexible channels for the future legal flow of immigration which could adjust itself to the ebb and flow of the economy.

Smart enforcement policies including moving resources away from spending money trying to detain and deport immigrants and “chasing busboys and nannies through the desert” into addressing problems such as drug and human trafficking at the border.

Markos Zuniga made the distinction between the political climate around immigration in 2007 and now by talking about today’s polls that show 66% of voters (an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans) support reform making it a truly bipartisan issue. With Latino groups reaching a plurality in 2050 and Asian and other minority communities growing rapidly, the co-relation between electoral votes and reform is clear. For many Republicans, falling back onto nativist rhetoric and hate-mongering like in 2007, could mean a significant loss in votes from Latino and other immigrant communities.”President Bush won 40% of the immigrant vote in 2004, John McCain only got 28% in 2008, so the long term health of republican party is in jeopardy if they can’t appeal to immigration groups.”

Andrea Nill added that while there are three groups largely responsible for the nativist rhetoric – FAIR, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, there is also division between the anti-immigration movement, including within the Republican party between moderates willing to engage with immigration reform, and hardliners such as  Rep. Joe Wilson and Rep. Brian Bilbray and other members of the House Immigration Reform Caucas.

Speaking on behalf of  the labor movement, Maria Durazo said there is high expectations from the administration and Congress to deliver on its promise of reform.”These are people who harvests our crops, build our buildings and work in our restaurant…they do services for us but then when we need to respond to their need to bring them out of the shadows we call them names – law breakers, illegals…we want to make sure any immigration legislation has protections for workers, both native born and undocumented immigrants who will come out of the shadows – because we will all lose if we don’t work together.”

In terms of Sen. Scott Brown’s recent victory, the panelists felt that it has little effect since immigration reform has and always will be a bipartisan issue. But on a larger scale, the election felt emblematic of the waning of Democrat popularity due to their lack of engagement with many issues, including immigration, and while voters are looking for the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ that they were promised, immigration reform is an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to work together towards a viable solution.

But there is also an economic argument for reform. According to a recent Center for American progress report, immigration reform will be crucial for the economy, with mass deportation causing a loss of $2.6 trillion as opposed to a growth of approximately $1.5 trillion over a ten-year period if reform passes. And since the economy, like healthcare,  is a foremost priority of the Obama administration, this is an opportunity to address both issues simultaneously.

The panelists were unanimous on the fact that the present situation is highly favorable towards immigration reform and highlighted the expanse, width and strength of the present coalitions, which today include faith-based groups, LGBT groups, ethnic groups, immigrant rights advocates and immigrant communities in general.

Looking ahead, while Rep. Gutierrez‘s progressive immigration bill which has 90 co-sponsors would serve as the progressive conscience, everyone is waiting for the bill that Sen. Charles Schumer is working on with Sen. Lindsey Graham is introducing for debate in the Senate. It will then move to the House where it will be written by Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

The penultimate point of the discussion centered around ensuring that the mainstream media begin to report on the issue and mobilize around reform. Maria Elena pointed out the importance of providing people with honest information about the implications of enforcement actions such as raids and detention to families and the economy. Markos Zuniga pointed out that Latino and Asian communities are virtually invisible to the mainstream media, thus removing one side of the immigration story. Stressing the importance of building a pro-immigration story into the media narrative, the speakers highlighted the essential role of online journalism, blogging and networking in building knowledge and momentum for the movement.