President Obama delivered a long speech today at American University, arguing for a comprehensive immigration bill in an address seemingly designed to put pressure on Republicans for opposing such reforms.
The address began with the President listing the numerous accomplishments from immigrants throughout history, from “Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel and Sergey Brin’s Google,” to the millions who came to America throughout the generations and helped build the country. While there has always been ugly politics surrounding the inclusion of immigrants, their benefit to the country is undeniable.
Obama said that the legal immigration system is as broken as the borders, a key point. Many of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the country didn’t go through the normal channels because of the extreme backlogs and obstacles with that system. And this makes them easily exploitable in the underground economy.
But here was the meat of the speech, at least to me:
Just a few years ago, when I was a senator, we forged a bipartisan coalition in favor of comprehensive reform. Under the leadership of Senator Kennedy, who had been a longtime champion of immigration reform, and Senator John McCain, we worked across the aisle to help pass a bipartisan bill through the Senate. But that effort eventually came apart. And now, under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics, many of the 11 Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support.
Into this breach, states like Arizona have decided to take matters into their own hands. Given the levels of frustration across the country, this is understandable. But it is also ill conceived. And it’s not just that the law Arizona passed is divisive -– although it has fanned the flames of an already contentious debate. Laws like Arizona’s put huge pressures on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable. It puts pressure on already hard-strapped state and local budgets. It makes it difficult for people here illegally to report crimes -– driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult.
And you don’t have to take my word for this. You can speak to the police chiefs and others from law enforcement here today who will tell you the same thing.
The rest was familiar – he advocated a balanced approach, enforcing the border and the workplace, fixing the legal immigration system, passing the DREAM Act, and providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented after paying fines and taxes. But basically, this was a speech about assigning blame. Republicans walked away from their own program, Obama said, and that led to a wild west show where states impose their own draconian laws and sanctions. The audience for that passage is the Hispanic community, and it’s a message designed for them to put pressure on Republicans to come back to the fold. Later in the speech, Obama says that a comprehensive bill must have bipartisan support:
I’m ready to move forward; the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward; and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward. But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality. The only way to reduce the risk that this effort will again falter because of politics is if members of both parties are willing to take responsibility for solving this problem once and for all.
And, yes, this is an emotional question, and one that lends itself to demagoguery. Time and again, this issue has been used to divide and inflame -– and to demonize people. And so the understandable, the natural impulse among those who run for office is to turn away and defer this question for another day, or another year, or another administration. Despite the courageous leadership in the past shown by many Democrats and some Republicans — including, by the way, my predecessor, President Bush -– this has been the custom. That is why a broken and dangerous system that offends our most basic American values is still in place.
Without directly calling to action, Obama is saying, “Go get the votes. Get Republicans on board. And we’ll have a bill.”