WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama called for bipartisan action on immigration reform, outlining essential elements of a comprehensive reform package, without setting timetables or introducing new policies.
“I believe we can put politics aside and have an immigration system that’s accountable,” Obama said Thursday to an audience of religious, business and labor leaders at American University’s (AU) School of International Service. “I think we can appeal not to people’s fears but to their hopes and their highest ideals. Because that’s who we are as Americans.”
In his first presidential speech on the issue, Obama framed the debate around American values of fairness and heritage as a refuge for “oppressed humanity” as Thomas Jefferson once said. Avoiding the polarizing rhetoric that has come to define the immigration debate, Obama recast the conversation and recited lines from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem, “The New Colossus”, saying that fixing immigration has a political, economic and moral imperative.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” he said. “Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth, it’s a matter of faith and it’s a matter of fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear.”
Obama’s remarks has come amid growing public contention on the issue, as states and local governments draw up controversial laws to enforce federal immigration law. Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which allows police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest and reasonably suspect to be illegal, goes into effect at the end of the month. Other state lawmakers have said they are planning to enact similar legislation.
Obama called the Arizona measure “ill-conceived,” and a dangerous precedent for the nation prompted by the federal government’s failure to act.
The president challenged Republicans to collaborate on the divisive dilemma as they had done in the past. He said conservatives had abandoned the issue to avoid political repercussions in the upcoming midterm elections.
“Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes,” said Obama, who met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other immigration advocacy leaders this week.
Obama said the “dangerous and broken” immigration system needs fixing and those who entered illegally must be held accountable.
“We can create a pathway to legal status that is fair, reflective of our values and works,” Obama declared.
Dr. Louis Goodman, professor and dean at AU’s School of International Service, where the event was hosted, said the president’s speech could spur the momentum that immigration reform advocates say is necessary to pass legislation soon.
“The discourse got elevated today and this makes it more real and more possible,” Goodman said, adding that the School of International Service is the ideal space to begin a dialogue of this tenor.
American University President Cornelius Kerwin said Obama’s choice of venue was likely intentional and symbolic.
“Universities represent deep analysis and reasoned discourse, he was calling for the same things,” Dr. Kerwin said. “The president’s speech was an example of very careful analysis combined with a call to action, which I think was unmistakable.”
Camilo Zambrano, an AU graduate student, said Obama showed leadership in moving the debate away from local and state governments back to Washington where it belongs.
“It was a speech to start a national conversation,” Zambrano said. “I foresee that this will help depolarize the debate as specific topics come into discussion.”
One of those topics is the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, legislation currently before the House and Senate that would provide a multi-step process of legalization for undocumented students. Pro-reform advocates have spared over whether to sponsor a stand-alone bill or include it as part of the immigration package.
Zambrano said the students who would benefit from the DREAM Act represent many of the American values Obama brought forth in his speech, helping the case for a complete immigration reform package.
These students are great examples of how the law breaks the fabric of the communities in the U.S.,” he said. “They’ve adapted, they contribute, they are prospects for the future, and there is so much potential but because of their legal status, we would deny that. It’s sad.”
Although Obama reiterated his support of the DREAM Act, he made no mention of the likelihood of its passage before the Congress’ August recess, a deadline advocates have set.
Dr. Alan Kraut, a history professor at AU, said the White House can center its strategy on passing the bill alone because it enjoys bipartisan and public support.
“It’s designed to help young people get an education to further themselves, to strengthen the country by having well-educated young Americans and that is a powerful selling point for a piece of legislation,” Kraut said.
But it’s believed the piecemeal route may pose a significant impediment to overhauling an immigration system that serves undocumented and legal immigrants alike inadequately.
Specific immigrant issues such as exorbitant attorney fees, student visas, and interminable waiting lists could be overlooked or ignored.
“But it’s a good place to begin. I believe in a kind of incrementalism and starting with the DREAM Act would make the discussion and debate over broader immigration reform just a little bit less contentious perhaps,” Kraut said.
Diffusing the vitriol and tempering the immigration debate to just the facts, Kraut said, may have been Obama’s goal with the speech.
“If we can and create an environment in which we can stop using hot-button words like ‘illegal’ or ‘amnesty’ and talk about human beings and their aspirations and the contributions they can make the country, then that’s what we need to be doing,” he said.