President Obama is at his oratorical best when hewing to a middle path on the complex, divisive issues confronting the nation: race, healthcare and, now, immigration. In his first major speech on immigration, delivered at American University on Thursday, he analyzed the broken, irrational system that hobbles the country’s economy, threatens its security and tears at its social fabric. Then he described how to fix it. He called on the U.S. to reaffirm its identity as a nation of immigrants. The genius of America, Obama said, is not passed down by birthright or heredity; its power is that of a magnet, attracting likeminded people from around the world who yearn for opportunity.
To those who maintain that “sealing” the border must come before other reform measures, as if the Mexican border is a Ziploc bag and not 1,930 miles of often rugged terrain, he explained that the internal and external pressures that encourage illegal immigration must be addressed to be successful. That means taking steps to end the bureaucratic backlog that leaves eligible people waiting for years to reunite with family members; supplying work visas more easily to potential immigrants who have the promise of employment; and requiring employers to verify the legal status of workers. And we need to bring 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadow economy. Yes, this is a nation of laws, he said, but no, we do not have the economic or logistical wherewithal to deport them all — nor is it the right thing to do. Better to have them admit their wrongdoing, pay taxes and fines, and learn English.
There was sobering prose along with the poetry. Obama acknowledged the impossibility of fixing the system without bipartisan support. “Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality,” he said. He’s right. But if reform is vital, then it is not enough to chide recalcitrant Republicans. After all, Democrats are not eager to undertake reform either — it would be political suicide before the midterm elections.
Obama can lead. Arizona’s polarizing new anti-immigrant law, which by month’s end will encourage police to ethnically profile people in an effort to rid the state of illegal immigrants, should be overturned. The administration is expected to file suit against the state, and it should. Obama can also urge Congress to take up measures that have bipartisan support, such as the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students conditional citizenship if they go to college or into the armed services. The president’s speech was a good beginning, a welcome note of civility in the ugly immigration debate. Now we need to see him turn eloquence into action.