Will Obama Tackle Immigration in the State of the Union Address?

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address at a time when each week, new efforts are cropping up in more and more states around the country to take immigration matters into their own hands.

But will the President address the highly divisive issue, and if so, how might he do it?

Tennessee attorney Gregg Ramos, who is leading the opposition in his state against a push in the legislature to pass an Arizona-style immigration bill, is doubtful that the President will touch the issue.

“The reality at the moment is that we’re probably two years away from having any meaningful action on immigration reform,” Ramos said, referring to victories in the November elections that put many proponents of tough immigration enforcement in office in Congress, where Republicans now control the House of Representatives.

“Last year there was more momentum” for comprehensive immigration reform proposals, Ramos said, yet the President “didn’t give it much importance [in the State of the Union speech].”

Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which supports strict immigration policies, also thinks it is unlikely that the President will raise the subject of immigration.

“That’s probably the last place he wants to go,” Stein said. “With this new tone of civility, we can anticipate either nothing or maybe some passing reference.”

And if the President does address immigration, Stein said, it would behoove him to stress enforcement.

“I can’t imagine how given the crisis in the housing market, unemployment, things that are emergencies, that he would talk about anything other than border security, border control,” Stein said.

Last year, the President angered many Hispanics and groups that support comprehensive immigration reform – which would include enforcement as well as a path to legalization for millions of undocumented people – when he made only a passing reference to immigration in his State of the Union address.

While campaigning for the presidency, Obama had vowed to push for immigration reform in his first year in office, and that was believed to have helped him clinch about 67 percent of the Hispanic vote over his challenger, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

But many Hispanics and others who had seen him as their best hope in a long time for a change in immigration law that would help many undocumented people come out of the shadows have grown increasingly disillusioned. Many Hispanic leaders said Obama did not push immigration reform with the same passion and energy that he fought for health care reform.

Many Hispanics spoke of having felt betrayed by him.

“The Obama administration has given little more than lip service to an issue that directly affects the extended families of many American Latinos: immigration reform,” wrote Stephen Lemons last year after the State of the Union address. “In essence, Obama’s message to the 12 million undocumented squeaking by on the margins, and to those who advocate on their behalf, is: Don’t hold your breath, amigos.”

Saying that Congress and Obama Administration have neglected to fix the nation's broken immigration system, dozens of states have announced plans to try to pass immigration laws similar to that of Arizona, which gives police the authority to enforce immigration laws. Arizona's law, the strictest of any state in the nation, is facing several court challenges.

And so tonight, said Raúl González, director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization, it is incumbent upon Obama to try to regain the confidence of Latinos in him.

“We’re the first to say you need everyone focused on jobs, on education, these are critical issues for the country, including Latinos,” González said. “But this immigration system has been broken for a long time, and the impact of that for Latinos and other immigrants has been great.”

“We hope he says something positive about immigrants,” he said. “But we’re also looking at Congress to talk about the issue in a civil way that focuses on doable solutions.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank in Washington, D.C. that promotes stricter immigration control, believes it inevitable that Obama will raise immigration in his speech, but he thinks he’ll try to strike a balance.

The President’s mention of it “will be bland and cliched, meaningless bromides,” Krikorian said.

“He’ll emphasize enforcement, and he’s likely to spend time touting his administration’s successes in enforcement,” he said. “He’ll say we need to be a nation of laws, but also compassionate and we need to help people come out of the shadows.”

“He’s going to have to say the word immigration,” Krikorian said, “he just can’t leave it out of the speech altogether.”

On immigration, to be sure, Obama is in a very tough spot, politically, he said.

“He’s got competing pressures on one hand, from the Republican House and the public at large demanding we have a tighter system and more integrity, and pressure from Hispanic and left-wing activists who want him to at least throw them a bone, to loosen immigration rules one way or the other.”


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