Mr. Obama’s speech at American University seemed more a place-holder than a specific call to action, as the president acknowledged the difficult politics around the issue. There is no chance Congress will tackle immigration reform this year, and in fact, prospects for next year could be just as grim; Republicans are expected to make significant gains in congressional seats in the fall midterm elections, potentially taking over one or both houses of Congress.
A conservative groundswell in the GOP has left no Senate Republicans willing to step forward and co-sponsor legislation on immigration.
But Obama still took time in a week packed with other issues – stubbornly high unemployment, financial reform, the BP oil spill, Elena Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation, and US military leadership in Afghanistan – to focus attention on a key 2008 campaign issue: addressing the nation’s broken immigration system, which includes 11 million immigrants here illegally. The issue holds special significance for the Latino community, which voted 2-1 for Obama in 2008. And with four months to go before November's elections, Obama laid blame for inaction 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,” Obama said. “But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem.”
Obama also laid out the elements of his reform plan:
- Greater border security. The US has “more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history,” Obama said, adding that the southern border is more secure than at any time in the past 20 years. But, he added, more needs to be done.
- Heightened workplace scrutiny. Obama said that the US has begun to crack down on the “worst workplace offenders” who hire and exploit undocumented workers. And, he said, the US is implementing and improving a system to give employers a way to verify employees’ immigration status. But he did not provide details.
- A way for illegal immigrants to “get right with the law.” In Obama’s view, illegal immigrants must register, pay taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. Then they can “get in line and earn their citizenship.”
- Changes to the US’s “creaky” legal immigration system. Already, Obama said, the US has tackled its backlog of background checks and is taking other steps to streamline the immigration process.
Obama held out hope that once the politics of immigration calm down, it can become “possible to shape a practical, commonsense approach that reflects our heritage and our values.”
Conservatives argue that the US must fully secure its borders before tackling a broader reform. They also oppose any kind of legalization system that can be called "amnesty."
With Arizona’s tough new immigration law due to go into effect on July 29, and the possibility of a US Department of Justice lawsuit aimed at challenging it, emotions are likely to run high for the foreseeable future.