President Mentions Immigration Reform in State of the Union Address, But Just Barely

Pres. Obama gives his State of the Union address. flanked by Vicepresident Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - Photo:

Pres. Obama gives his State of the Union address. flanked by Vicepresident Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Photo:

Here is what President Barack Obama had to say about immigration reform in his first State of the Union address. The mention was so brief that we quote it here in its entirety:

We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system — to secure our borders, enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nations.

The very next sentence contained the only direct mention of immigrants in Obama’s speech:

In the end, it is our ideals, our values, that built America — values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe, values that drive our citizens still.

The two sentences came at a key point in the address, the moment of transition from the agenda portion of the speech to the sweeping close that focused on values. Immigration reform was the very last issue Obama mentioned in remarks that took on a wide range of pressing problems including job creation, health care reform, corporate and government responsibility, the need for bipartisanship in Washington, alternative energy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and many others.

The sentence that followed, about immigrants and values, was the opening image in the final section of the speech in which Mr. Obama reaffirmed the “spirit of determination and optimism — that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people.”

Immigrant advocates are probably disappointed. The brevity and lack of specificity of the president’s remarks, along with his placement of the issue at the end of a very long list of priorities, seem to reinforce the widely held belief that immigration reform is on the administration’s back burner. Those who claim undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs from American citizens can’t be too happy either. Yes, Obama talked about securing borders and enforcing laws. But he also affirmed the idea of letting “everyone who plays by the rules” contribute to the U.S. economy.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this brief passage in the speech is that Obama actually talked about immigration reform at all. It’s a subject that he has, until now, largely managed to avoid in big national speeches like his inaugural address one year ago. Instead the president has mainly allowed others, including members of his Cabinet, to present the administration’s position on this touchy subject.

Just one day before the president’s speech, Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano gave a preview of the administration’s priorities at a press conference at DHS headquarters in Washington, D.C. and on the White House website’s “The President’s Cabinet reporting to you” feature, which you can watch below.

The security publication HS Today reported,

“Napolitano also promised that the administration had not forgotten about immigration reform. Changes to US immigration law are necessary to ensure ‘effective national security’ by bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows, the secretary said.

“As such, the department is continuing to work with Congress to introduce bills that would enact comprehensive immigration reform this year.”

And what about Obama’s use of immigrants to open the values section of his speech? It seems that while the plight of some 12 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. is still too hot to handle, immigrants — as an idea — have a secure spot in the pantheon of inspirational political icons, along with mothers, soldiers and firefighters.

It’s as if the president was saying to immigrants in his address, “I haven’t forgotten about you, but I really can’t do much for you right now.” The failure to pass a health care bill has shown that Mr. Obama’s hands-off approach has not been effective. Now, with immigration policy, the administration appears to be going down a similar path and perhaps heading the country to another frustrating stalemate.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.