Thoughts on President Obama's Immigration Speech
Posted on 05/13/2011 @ 03:30 PM
President Obama made a big speech this week on immigration in the border city El Paso, Texas. The speech marks a shift in focus towards the issue, which had been pretty quiet all year until about a month ago.
The policy speech highlighted the administration’s accomplishments in cracking down on immigration enforcement and focused on the economic importance of reforming the immigration system. He cited the 20,000 border agents working along the U.S.-Mexico border, employers who are being held accountable for taking advantage of undocumented workers, and the focus of deportations on violent offenders and criminals. He argued that his administration has done everything to fulfill to the requests of enforcement-first representatives. “The most significant step we can now take to secure the borders,” he said, “is fix the system as a whole.”
So, what does genuine comprehensive immigration reform look like to President Obama these days? The following are the elements he outlined in Tuesday's speech:
- Secure the borders and enforce laws.
- Implement policies that hold businesses accountable for exploiting undocumented workers.
- Institute a pathway to legal status that includes paying taxes, paying a fine, learning English, and undergoing a background check.
- Reform the outdated legal immigration system.
- Keep families together.
There are a few things that I had to shake my head at while listening to the speech. When the president brought up deporting undocumented immigrants, he said, “We’re not doing it haphazardly. We are focusing our limited resources and people on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes. Not just families, not just folks who are looking to scrape together and income.” This is misleading. While I can’t argue that DHS’ goal isn’t focusing on violent offenders, it is true that the majority of the more than 400,000 people deported in 2010 were not criminals. They were hundreds of thousands of folks who are looking to scrape together an income.
The president also touts the militarization of the border as an accomplishment of his administration. In reality, it hurts border communities economically and environmentally, and is an inefficient use of resources. Twenty thousand agents on the border is an expensive bandaid solution for a problem that needs a legislative overhaul.
President Obama also mentioned the need to take steps to ensure that “fewer people have incentive to enter illegally and find work in the first place.” This extends far beyond domestic immigration policy. Border enforcement and cracking down on employers has very little to do with the reasons people have to come to the United States. There is very little economic opportunity in rural Mexico, for example. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful incentive to try and make a living in another country, legally or no, when your family lives in grueling poverty. This comment by the president points to the need to effectively address severe global inequality, how it influences movement of people across the world, and what the U.S.' role should be in mitigating it.
There were several aspects presented that lined up with what FCNL is looking for in immigration reform. President Obama emphasized the “economic imperative” to reform the immigration system, such as the need to crack down on employers that hire and abuse undocumented immigrants. This will raise wages and improve working conditions for all workers, not just immigrant workers and strengthen the middle class by crippling the underground economy in the U.S. Also integral to FCNL’s position on immigration reform is family unity and a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers that are already here, both key points raised by the president.
In all, it was a good speech. President Obama did a good job of outlining how the administration has fulfilled "enforcement first" demands, and invited Congress to come back to the table to discuss the next step: reform of the laws. He urged his audience to raise their voices about the issue, and has published materials on a White House webpage dedicated to immigration that helps people take action in their own communities. For me, at this point, I am most interested in seeing what pressure the president can put on Congress to actually take action, and how effective that pressure can be.
Watch the speech for yourself, and let us know what you think.