President Barack Obama made an appeal to the American people and Congress today, July 1, to put politics aside, and work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"We are confronting the great challenges of our time," Obama said during his remarks made at American University in Washington D.C., and televised live.
This administration will not just "kick the can down the road" when most agree the current immigration system is fundamentally broken, the president said.
Every day millions of immigrants live and work in the United States because they want a better life for their families, he said.
"Our founding was rooted in the notion that America was unique as a place of refuge and freedom for, in Thomas Jefferson's words, 'oppressed humanity,'" the president said.
But, he said, there has always been anti-immigrant rhetoric and laws.
"[T]he ink on our Constitution was barely dry when, amidst conflict, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which placed harsh restrictions of those suspected of having foreign allegiances. A century ago, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, other European countries were routinely subjected to rank discrimination and ugly stereotypes. Chinese immigrants were held in detention and deported from Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. They didn't even get to come in," he said.
Obama said immigrants have historically enriched American culture and helped grow small businesses and the economy as a whole. Many noncitizen immigrants continue to enlist in the U.S. military because they take pride in the values of America, said Obama.
"Immigrants have helped to build and defend this country," he said. "That is what makes us strong and unique."
But many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants continue to live in the shadows, which hurts the country, he said. From "unscrupulous businesses who pay" less than "minimum wage or violate worker safety rules - thereby putting companies who follow those rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime, at an unfair [dis]advantage," he said, to unreported crimes, lost tax revenue and undermining the legal immigration process.
Plus states take federal immigration policy into their own hands, he said, referring to Arizona. He called their new laws "ill-conceived."
Anti-immigrant state laws and local ordinances create huge pressures for law enforcement agencies and economic hardships on budgets, said Obama. They will also potentially violate the rights of U.S. citizens based on how people look and speak, he said.
Obama said immigration reform is being held hostage by special interests groups. Two years ago, nearly a dozen Republicans supported reform, however all have since backed away from the issue, he said.
Although many argue strengthening the border is the solution, Obama said there are more U.S. boots on the ground there than in the last 20 years. "However we can't solve the problem with just fences and walls."
He urged a comprehensive approach, including updating the "creaky" legal immigration system, allowing undocumented immigrants to legalize themselves through a multi-step process, passing the DREAM Act to allow undocumented youth -- brought here by their parents -- to enter college and contribute to the economy, and reducing the demand for undocumented workers by "cracking down" on abusive employers.
The right way to view immigration reform should be based on how to unite the country not divide it, he urged. And the path to reform on this issue needs a practical common sense approach from everybody, including government, businesses and individuals, he said.
"Ultimately the question is: Do we have the courage and the political will to pass a bill in Congress? To get it done?" he asked.
"Without bipartisan support we cannot solve this problem. The political and mathematical reality is that we need Republican support," said Obama.
Supporters, he said, agree immigration reform is an emotional issue that must not be used to divide, deferred or demonize people. Overhauling the current system will need continued and growing support of the faith-based, labor, business and community partners both liberal and conservative, he said.
It's not just political or economic, it's also a moral and compassionate issue, he said. Using vivid American imagery, Obama invoked the history of the Statue of Liberty and of Emma Lazarus, an American poet whose family roots reach back to colonial days and the forced migration of Jewish Europeans, fleeing persecution. Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus," the iconic poem that is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Obama read the poem:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand,
A mighty woman with a torch...
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome...
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"...
"Give me your tired, and your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free...
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The president, like the Statue of Liberty and Lazarus' poem, appeals to the best of America.
As the fight for immigration reform heats up, the meaning behind the Statue of Liberty is something we should all keep in mind.