Obama on immigration reform – kicking the can to Republicans in Congress?


“This administration will not just kick the can down the road” on immigration reform, President Barack Obama said in his July 1 speech on immigration at American University. He may have done just that, however, by insisting that immigration reform is only possible with Republican votes. If Republicans, or at least some Republicans, don’t support immigration reform, this administration believes it isn’t possible. 

Except for that prescription for failure, the president’s speech was made up of roughly equal parts of facts that get routinely ignored in the immigration debate (e.g., that crime on the border is actually falling, not rising), an outline for reform that has been introduced and sidelined year after year after year, and inspirational rhetoric (e.g., nation of immigrants, magnet for best and brightest).

John Keller, executive director and supervising attorney of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, heard lots of positives in the president’s speech, and said that, “It’s extremely important that he continue to lead and to remind Americans of the importance of both famous immigrants and the everyday, working immigrants who are our clients.”

Call to action

John Keller ended his telephone interview with a call to action:

“If we give in to the political calculations that the president repeated today, that we can’t do anything unless the Republicans join us, it saps our commitment and energy … It turns our back on the very people who are too vulnerable to raise their voices and who are counting on us to fix this issue for this generation. I would challenge anybody who’s frustrated and angered by the lack of action out of Washington to channel that into positive phone calling, conversations with neighbors, working with faith communities, unions, professional associations, Minnesota’s business and other employment-based associations, etc.”

On the other hand, said Keller, “The politics as usual on this issue has handcuffed us and the hardworking immigrant community for four or five years now. We just can’t do it until A and then we just can’t do it until B. We know that on the other side, on the Republican side, they would just be happy to keep adding more and more conditions.”

Robin Phillips, executive director of the Advocates for Human Rights, said it’s good that the president is taking a position and bringing immigration into the public debate. The Advocates for Human Rights’ work includes a Refugee and Immigrant Program, as well as education on immigration issues, Phillips said she liked President Obama’s focus on family unity, workers’ rights, and fixing systems and processes that are not working.

“Unfortunately,” Phillips said, “there was not enough focus on due process rights.” She said she wanted to hear him make a strong statement about due process for everyone, regardless of their immigration status, and to acknowledge that “we routinely detain people even when they are making legitimate asylum claims.”

The facts

Feel free to skip this part – the immigration debate has little to do with facts. But, if you insist –

From the president’s speech:

  • About 11 million people are present in the United States without authorization. Some of them have been here for years and have children who were born here. Some are children who were brought here by their parents and know no other home.
  • Deporting 11 million people who are here without authorization would be “logistically impossible and wildly expensive.”
  • Mass deportations would disrupt our economies and communities and “would tear at the very fabric of the nation because immigrants who are here illegally are integrally woven into that fabric.”
  • We have doubled border enforcement officers and tripled the number of intelligence experts on the border.
  • Our southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past 20 years.
  • Fewer people are trying to cross the border illegally than at any time in the past 20 years.

And a few facts he didn’t mention

  • Not everyone has a line to stand in to get a visa. “He juxtaposes legal and illegal immigration as if everyone has access, but that just isn’t true,” said Phillips in a phone interview. “We would like him to emphasize that, for many, there really isn’t a process to enter legally.” She elaborated further in the Advocates’ press release: “The distinction made between undocumented immigrants and those who are here legally sets up a false dichotomy. Many people flow in and out of status for a variety of reasons, and for the majority of low-skilled workers, there simply is no legal process for them to follow. This myth lends itself to scapegoating immigrant populations, and in turn, leads to a host of human rights violations.
  • “There’s a big myth that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes,” Phillips said, “and it’s unfortunate that he repeated this in his speech.” She said that undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes as well as sales taxes and other kinds of taxes.

Proposals for reform

Bills are introduced by Congress members and Senators not by presidents, but here are the basic elements, which have been part of immigration bills introduced over the past years, and which were outlined again by President Obama:

  • Create a pathway to legalization for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are already in the United States. The president emphasized that he does not support “blanket amnesty” but would support provisions that require these immigrants to admit they are here illegally, to register their status, pay any back taxes, pay a fine, learn English, and then get in line to earn citizenship.
  • “Make it easier for the best and the brightest to come to start businesses and develop products and create jobs.”
  • “Respect families following the rules — instead of splitting them apart.”
  • Provide farms a legal way to hire the workers they rely on and a path for those workers to earn legal status.
  • “Stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents” and allow them a pathway to legalization and education – specifically through the DREAM Act.
  • And, of course, the thread that runs through all of the discussion: Stop illegal immigration through border enforcement and through making it harder for businesses to employ unauthorized immigrants.

Both Phillips and Keller tried to focus on some of what they saw as positive in the president’s speech.

“We did appreciate his focus on the security issues,” said Phillips, “and that punitive legislation [like the Arizona law] creates public security issues with crime victims and witnesses going underground.”

Keller said that the president seemed to want people to “see his frustration and see the problem as not being one that lies in the White House but rather down the street [in Congress.]” Keller referred to the bill co-authored by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, saying that Graham “walked away from his own bill when the political calculations changed on this issue. The bill did not change. His willingness to be a leader on it is what changed. I think it wasn’t his decision, it was a party decision.”

Keller warned about a growing credibility gap for the president on immigration, suggesting that the president could take some executive actions even if he can’t get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, such as granting deferred enforced departure (DED) to students who would come under proposed DREAM Act provisions.