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Obama Finally Steps to the Podium on Immigration Reform

In today’s immigration speech, President Obama took the opportunity to argue for a comprehensive overhaul of our immigration laws, while addressing some leading questions from both skeptics and supporters of reform.

Enforcement-only advocates want to know why we should entertain a conversation about immigration reform with an insecure border. For the border-first hawks, Obama pointed to his recent (and some say politically-motivated) increases in border security funding and personnel as evidence of his get-tough stance. He also highlighted a key fact often lost in the national obsession with securing the Southern border: a significant number of undocumented immigrants actually came here legally and then overstayed their visas. Therefore, immigration reform can’t simply be about sealing boundaries and building walls.

Immigration reform proponents, along with faith and business leaders, continue to question the near-absence of movement on this issue. For these advocates, Obama emphasized that the lack of action on legislation is to be blamed on Republicans. "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 that without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem."

Indeed, Democrats in the House have already introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, while a group of Senate Democrats have released a proposal for reform. And a recent poll showed that 57 percent of Americans support an earned legalization program for undocumented immigrants. Yet this reality goes unrecognized by GOP legislators opposed to a comprehensive package. Perhaps this is why Obama highlighted AgJOBS and the DREAM Act, both limited measures that give legal status to undocumented farmworkers and students that have long received backing from the GOP.

Obama also discussed the crucial role that immigrants, legal and undocumented, play in our economy. Not surprisingly, he mostly focused on immigrant engineers, inventors and small business owners, including everyone’s favorite foreign-born success story, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. No one has a problem with thinking of “the best and the brightest” legal immigrants as value-added to our nation. However, some Americans angrily question why we must legalize low-wage undocumented workers, whose role in the labor market often goes unseen. Addressing these concerns, Obama spoke briefly about the economic contributions of undocumented farmworkers, and the need to end exploitation of undocumented workers by unscrupulous employers. To sell this point, Obama should have been clearer about the impact this exploitation has on US-born workers. As it stands, undocumented workers compete with native-born workers on an uneven playing field, to the detriment of both groups. As long as this cheaper and more compliant pool of immigrant labor is available, employers are all too willing to take advantage of the situation to keep their labor costs down; this leaves US workers on the hook to either accept degraded conditions or be shut out of these industries altogether.

In all, the President’s speech was full of talk about the importance of immigrants to our country and the urgent need to rewrite the laws that bring them here. He told us that delays on this reform were due to the “pressures of partisanship and election-year politics." Without a stated timeline for legislative reform, it’s likely that we’ll just have to wait until after the November elections to see Congress tackle this issue. It’s clear that even after mid-term elections Republican opposition to immigration reform will endure; Obama neglected to offer a solution for overcoming this more serious obstacle. Ultimately, Obama’s speech made a strong case for why the US needs immigration reform, but left how we’ll get there up for debate.

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Posted at 5:22 PM, Jul 01, 2010 in Immigration
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