Obama puts immigration reform back on table

President Obama wants comprehensive immigration reform back on the table.

During a stop in El Paso, Texas, May 10, the president called for creating a path to legal status for undocumented workers, passing the DREAM Act, holding unscrupulous employers accountable and a process for keeping immigrant families together.

He noted that in the past two years his administration has met the demands of Republicans in Congress who prefer a “border first” or, more accurately, “enforcement first,” immigration policy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the past, is one such lawmaker who has backed off his support for reform since President Obama took office.

To meet the demands of the “enforcement first” Republicans, President Obama said he has take such steps as doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, improving cooperation with Mexico on the flow of illegal drugs and targeting violent criminals illegally present in the U.S. first for deportation.

By his own admission, the increased number of deportations has been “controversial.” Critics of the administration’s deportation efforts point out that more than just criminals have been kicked out of the country. According to a recent story at Colorlines.com, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, in announcing his state’s decision to end previous cooperation with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on deportations, said that as many as 30 percent of deportees have no criminal record.

After meeting “enforcement first” demands, President Obama told the El Paso crowd, “I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time. They’ll say we need to triple the border patrol. Or quadruple the border patrol. They’ll say we need a higher fence to support reform.

“Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat,” he said. “They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”

But now is the time for moving forward with reform, the president urged.

The speech earned President Obama praise from business and religious groups on a teleconference call afterward.

Warren Buffet scion Howard G. Buffett told reporters the president’s speech signals the chance to move away from politics as usual toward working out a compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. He described the current system as “dysfunctional.” “People suffer from it,” he added. “Businesses suffer form it, and at times our economy has suffered from it.”

He added that keeping so many working people in the shadows allows unscrupulous business owners to push down wages for all workers.

El Paso Mayor John Cook praised the president’s speech as “right on,” and added that a comprehensive approach beyond just enforcement makes most sense.

Randy Johnson, an official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, guardedly praised the speech. He took a moment to lash out at the labor movement for its demand that immigration reform work to protect the rights of all workers. If the final package includes a “temporary guestworker” program, which many say allows employers to super-exploit immigrants, his organization is ready to back comprehensive reform. He added that few of the president’s critics have given him credit for the border security

On the same day as the speech, the AFL-CIO signaled its continued intent to stand with all workers, including immigrants, to protect their rights to decent wages, the right to join unions, and to better working conditions.

In a statement announcing new partnerships with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka emphasized the unions’ role in standing with immigrant workers disproportionately represented by the two groups.

“We are committing to work together to build a powerful labor movement for the 21st century,” he said. “We are proud to fight together with our union brothers and sisters to defend and expand the right to organize, win justice for immigrants, and ensure that one day the workers that makes all other work possible – cleaning and caring for children and seniors – will have rights, respect, and recognition.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform is about people that are our neighbors that go to church with us and work with us,” added Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. “Immigration reform is about people, people who are our neighbors, who go to church with us, work with us.”

“All people need to be treated with dignity and respect,” he added. “And that’s true in enforcement as well as in reform.”

“The president gave a good speech,” Carey told reporters. “But he needs to do more than make good speeches.”

“We would like the president to show the same tenacity in working for immigration reform that he demonstrated in the search for Osama bin Laden.”

He said Obama’s leadership is needed to build a broad, bipartisan consensus on comprehensive reform.

Image: Obama speaks in El Paso. Photo via White House.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.