Obama’s Speech on Immigration Intended for Many Audiences

President Obama addressing El Paso in his immigration speech on May 10, 2011

President Obama speaking in El Paso, TX on May 10, 2011.

“Everybody knows the system is broken,” said President Obama in El Paso on Tuesday afternoon, “The question is, will we summon the political will to do something about it?”

In a major speech on immigration, the President said little new, but a close reading reveals the pressures Mr. Obama faces from all camps enmeshed in the immigration debate.

First, the President tried to appeal to immigration reform doubters with his opening image of a ‘nation of immigrants’  working to achieve the ‘American Dream.’

E pluribus, unum.  Out of many, one.  We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants – a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts.  That’s why millions of people, ancestors to most of us, braved hardship and great risk to come here – so they could be free to work and worship and live their lives in peace.

This widely accepted idea in the American imagination was evoked to provide legitimacy to the President’s call for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), a plan that has largely been rejected by Republicans in Congress. In an effort to reframe the issue as non-partisan, the President gave examples of Republicans, particularly business leaders like Rupert Murdoch, who support CIR. Obama presented CIR as not only helping immigrants, but the nation as a whole.

Well, one way to strengthen the middle class is to reform our immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everyone else.  I want incomes for middle class families to rise again.  I want prosperity in this country to be widely shared.  That’s why immigration reform is an economic imperative.

The President also directed his remarks to business leaders. Between his lines about the immigrant origins of the founders of Google, Intel, Yahoo and eBay, he was telling them that he will work to expand the number of H-1B visas for high skilled workers. Notably, he did not speak about low-skilled workers directly, except for a brief line about providing legal workers to America’s farms.

He also addressed those who are concerned about open borders, crime, and punishment. “Yet at the same time, we are standing at the border today because we also recognize that being a nation of laws goes hand in hand with being a nation of immigrants.  This, too, is our heritage.” The President listed all his administration’s accomplishments on border-security, saying it is more secure than ever before in America’s history.

Here, it was evident Obama was frustrated that he had not received credit for his efforts. “We’ve always got more work to do.  But this progress is important and it’s not getting reported on,” he said.

Obama then shifted his tone and spoke more directly to the crowd applauding him, immigrants and immigrant advocates.

Now, I know that the increase in deportations has been a source of controversy.  But I want to emphasize: we are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.  As a result, we increased the removal of criminals by 70 percent. That is not to ignore the real human toll.  Even as we recognize that enforcing the law is necessary, we don’t relish the pain it causes in the lives of people just trying to get by.

At this point the speech took on more of an us-versus-them tone. He said no matter how much his administration secured the border and deported criminals, Republicans would shift the goal posts. “Maybe they’ll say we need a moat.  Or alligators in the moat.” Members of Congress who had walked away from talks and the DREAM Act were criticized. Obama reiterated his belief that immigration is a bipartisan issue that has become skewed by politicians.

Obama then put forth his vision: border security; holding employers accountable for hiring practices; undocumented immigrants must admit that they broke the law, pay their taxes, pay a fine, go through a lengthy background check and learn English; and reform of the legal immigration system that includes visas for family reunification.

Today, the immigration system not only tolerates those who break the rules, it punishes the folks who follow the rules.

Finally, Obama addressed the “Dreamers,” the young undocumented people who would be affected by the DREAM Act, saying that its failure to pass the Senate last fall broke his heart. He said he would continue to push for the bill and asked supporters to keep the pressure on. But perhaps the line that immigrant advocates heard most clearly was that he refused to sidestep Congress and use his executive powers to begin enacting his agenda. Advocates have been asking him to unilaterally stop deportations for students who would be eligible for the DREAM Act ever since the bill failed.

Because Obama won’t use his executive powers to stop deportations, he is now accused by some immigration advocates of using pretty but empty words in the hopes of winning over immigrant votes. And because he is talking about legalization options for undocumented immigrants at all, he is accused by the opposing camp of rewarding law-breakers.

It may be a bipartisan issue, but that doesn’t make it any easier to solve.

Watch the President’s speech

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.