Obama Says Immigration System Is “Broken,” But Provides No Map For Reform

President Obama

President Obama. (Photo: The White House)

President Obama’s speech on immigration on Thursday morning was eloquent, heartfelt and rational. He strove to reach all concerned parties: secure border advocates; immigration reform activists; undocumented immigrant youth who desire to attend college; the agricultural community; the business community and members of Congress.

Did he satisfy everyone? Of course not.

The major criticism of the speech was that while the president reiterated his commitment to reform, he did not lay out a road map. No specifics, no time-line, no concrete promises. Basically, nothing new here.

Univision’s Jorge Ramos, an outspoken supporter of reform, told National Public Radio that he thought the speech was great, “but even a great speech at this moment was not enough. We want action.”

Obama began by saying that his administration would not shy away from tackling immigration because it’s a contentious issue. He listed the many accomplishments immigrants have contributed to building this country, and the importance of diversity to global competition and the new economy.

The president also acknowledged that immigration has been a painful and divisive issue throughout the nation’s history. “The politics of who is and who is not allowed to enter this country, and on what terms, has always been contentious, and that remains true today,” Obama said. He swallowed the blame on behalf of Washington, for failing to fix a broken system.

Overall, his portrayal of immigrants was very positive, as hard working people seeking a better life. He listed the grave risks of not fixing the system: the difficulties it poses to local law enforcement; billions of lost taxes; exploitation. He also listed the negative consequences of the current legal immigration system. “The presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of those who are going through the process legally.”

Speaking to the pro-immigrant rights front, the president said flatly he did not agree with amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Yet he was clear that doesn’t mean the government will just deport all the undocumented.

“Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover it would tear at the very fabric of our nation, because immigrants who are here illegal are now intricately woven into that fabric,” he said. “So even if it were possible a program of deportation would upset our economy and communities in ways that most Americans would find intolerable.”

Arizona’s move to take immigration policy into its own hands was understandable because of frustration with the lack of federal reform, Obama said, but it was ill-conceived. A patchwork of immigration laws will not solve anything, when a national policy is needed. He said nothing about a potential Justice Department lawsuit against the state, but didn’t deny it either.

After stating he was ready for reform, Obama then squarely placed the issue at the feet of the Republican Party. Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute commented that one of the goals of the speech was “to make it more difficult for Republicans to keep saying no.”

Four years ago, there were 11 Republicans who supported reform, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Now none of these members of Congress support an immigration reform bill. “Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes,” said Obama. “That is the political and mathematical reality.”

In an nod to Republicans who say they won’t support reform until the borders are secure, the president was crystal clear that he will not stand for porous borders, nor will he wait until comprehensive reform is passed to improve enforcement. “Today we have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any other time in our history,” and there’s been a reduction in crime and people crossing. “The southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past 20 years,” and as his recent announcement to send more troops to the border demonstrates, he’s committed to keeping it that way.

But the reality is, the border is too vast to be secured simply by fences and patrols, “it won’t work,” he said.

He essentially said that his view of immigration reform includes a path to citizenship for those here already, but that those who came illegally should be held accountable–pay taxes, fines, admit they broke the law, and learn English. But in perhaps the most remarkable moment in the speech, Obama said their children should not be punished and openly gave his support to the DREAM Act. Rosenblum took that to mean that the President would support that bill on its own this year, as a down payment on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR).

But what would that CIR look like? The president did give a shout-out to Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) for introducing their blueprint for reform–but after some initial fanfare, that framework hasn’t moved much–and Sen. Graham has now backed away. Leaving the ball in the Republican court was a politically calculated move–since it’s unlikely to budge, it buys Obama some time.

Less than a month before Arizona’s law is scheduled to take effect, the climate around immigration is so heated that Obama had to address the issue. Yet it’s still a tremendous long shot that we’ll see an immigration bill go through Congress this year. The president can try to shame Republicans into debate, but ultimately, if they decide it’s not in their political interest it will not happen. When they are, the president says he is ready.

“The president had some other things that were higher priority like health care reform, financial reform, energy reform, and as he said in his speech, we’ve sort of crossed those off the list, and it’s time to get down to immigration now, that’s next on his to-do list,” said Rosenblum.

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.