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Obama's immigration speech: Light on details, heavy on vague demands

Published time: January 30, 2013 02:15
Edited time: January 30, 2013 06:54

Barack Obama (John Gurzinski / Getty Images / AFP)

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President Obama gave a highly anticipated speech on immigration to a cheering crowd in Las Vegas. It comes as Congress tries to put together a reform package - and if it fails, Obama warned, he'll write his own and send it to them for a vote.

The speech was unsurprising in content, with the president relying on cliched anecdotes about immigrant contributions to American society and the domestic economy to get his point across. Obama asked for congressional action to give undocumented immigrants the opportunity to become citizens, tighten border and workplace controls, and create new ways for foreign students and workers to immigrate legally and more easily – without much in the way of how such demands would be accomplished.

“The good news is that for the first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together. Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution,” Obama said. "Now is the time," he said, to overhaul the country's "out of date and badly broken" immigration system.

But the address was sparse on specifics when it came to what such a reform bill would actually look like, and was more of a way for the president to get Americans talking about solutions to what many see as the country's immigration 'problem.'

Obama hinted that he had amnesty in mind for the people living in the US who came to the country illegally.

"Right now, we have 11 million undocumented immigrants in America," he said. "Yes, they broke the rules. They crossed the border illegally. Maybe they overstayed their visas. Those are facts, nobody disputes them.  But these 11 million men and women are now here.  Many of them have been here for years.  And the overwhelming majority of these individuals aren’t looking for any trouble.  They’re contributing members of the community.  They're looking out for their families.  They're looking out for their neighbors. … Every day, like the rest of us, they go out and try to earn a living."

So-called DREAMers, people who benefited from the 2001 DREAM Act that gave permanent residency to some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as minors and graduated from American high schools, featured as examples in the address. Obama called on Congress to keep the act in place, but also to "act on a comprehensive approach that finally deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country right now."

Advocates for undocumented immigrants have been calling on Obama to slow down the rate of deportations as the immigration reform deal is written, giving others the same opportunities given to DREAMers.

“The President should immediately follow his speech with an order suspending deportations as the first step to open a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” Pablo Alvarado, the director of the National Day Laborers Network, said in a statement. “Demonstrating that all 11 million undocumented people deserve the same relief given to the Dreamers will set the debate in the right direction and remove divisions between ‘us and them.’”

Sending about 400,000 people back to where they came from every year since taking office, the Obama administration has set records in terms of deportations, a point the president noted in the address as one of his successes. Though he mentioned the deportations of criminals, Obama left out the fact that about 45 per cent of the roughly 410,000 people the United States deported in 2012 had not been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.

Rights groups representing gay and lesbian immigrants also have demands for the new legislation, as currently the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex couples federal benefits, bans Americans in same-sex relationships from sponsoring their undocumented partners for green cards.

We need President Obama to show real and tangible leadership on immigration issues,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, of LGBT immigrants rights groups GetEQUAL, in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands of LGBT immigrants like myself would benefit from that call in enormous ways while we wait for Congress to act.”

Though Obama has voiced support for legislation that would give same-sex citizen-immigrant couples rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, he has refused to stop deporting immigrant partners. Republicans are opposed to even mentioning same-sex couples in draft legislation.

Now, members of Congress are to begin putting together the language for an immigration bill. What concrete details can be made of the president's demands for changes to how the US treats immigration remain to be seen – including who will or will not get to enjoy any reforms to the federal system.