President Obama’s speech Thursday night was about immigration reform in content, but his proposals will be overshadowed by the debate over the constitutionality of his actions and how the Republicans will respond.
I am personally a huge supporter of immigration reform and felt that the bipartisan Senate bill was too draconian. It would take too long to get citizenship for illegal immigrants already living in the country. And it required them to jump through too many hoops, which would, as Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez argued, mean that we would continue to deport over a thousand immigrants every day.
There is a way to create two plans, with one that focuses on securing the border and the other on a pathway to citizenship. By disentangling these two issues, Congress may be able to make progress and we can avoid more executive orders and gridlock.
The president reiterated his desire for Congress to send him an immigration bill that he can sign, which simply hasn’t happened. But moving ahead with piecemeal bills passed by executive order is fundamentally anti-democratic and it is unconstitutional.
As for the content of the president’s order, it will help a projected five million illegal immigrants to live without fear of deportation. Those who will be eligible to stay here must have been here for five years or more, have children who are American citizens, pass a criminal background check and pay taxes. Only those that meet this criteria will be allowed to stay and the president was clear that this wasn’t granting amnesty to illegal immigrants – it isn’t a “free pass,” as he put it.
Obama described his approach as “commonsense” and “middle ground” and was, unsurprisingly, very defensive of his actions. Keeping families together and not allowing new illegal immigrants into the country were the themes throughout his speech.
He said, "The real amnesty [is] leaving this broken system the way it is. Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability – a commonsense, middle ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."
The president reminded Americans that what makes us an exceptional country is that all of us, at one point, came to American in search of a better life. And these five million people are no different.
Nevertheless, Americans want to see the border secured before we do any other immigration reform. And the president’s speech contained no promise – or order – to do that. It follows that it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to focus on anything besides the fact that President Obama used executive action and that the border won’t be secured.
Anxiety will continue to grow that more illegal immigrants will stream into America, especially since many will interpret Obama’s amnesty for millions of illegals as an invitation for more to come.
Time is running out for Congress to come together and pass comprehensive immigration reform that accomplishes what the American people want: secure borders and a pathway to citizenship.
The president’s speech Thursday night showed very little progress towards that goal.