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Obama Falls Flat in El Paso

May 11, 2011 ·

Under Obama's new plan, immigrants will have to wait longer, pay more, and enjoy fewer rights.

Pity President Obama.

His supposedly important immigration speech fell flat. Nobody is taking him seriously on this issue, which could make or break his re-election campaign.

As House Republican leaders demand $2 trillion or more in budget cuts, Obama's political obligations to Latinos are obliging some hard-to-believe promise-making. By travelling to El Paso to steer the country to a different conversation about immigration, Obama escaped for a day the eternal gridlock of a divided Congress.

His blueprint for immigration reform, unveiled in El Paso, fails to advance the debate forward. Instead, it emphasizes the responsibility of "people living in the U.S. illegally" (the term Obama's speechwriters apparently prefer to "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers.") Unbelievably, Obama's immigration plans would be far more punitive for undocumented people than any previous proposal. He's calling for "a series of fines," in addition to a requirement that immigrants pay back taxes as part of a path to legalization/citizenship. His plan would also make newly-legalized immigrants wait for eight years before they can apply for residence.

Under Obama's plan, immigrants would have to wait longer, pay more, than they do now, while enjoying fewer rights. Meanwhile, Republicans are committed to intertwining the issues of terrorism and immigration. 

On the same day, Republican House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, introduced the Secure Visas Act. It's a bill sold as an anti-terrorism measure that would make it easier to take away visas from individuals from certain countries without judicial review. Notably, Mexico is one of the countries on the list.

Obama says his hands are tied with regard to the high number of deportations occurring during his presidency, but advocates have already demonstrated that he can act on his own to provide relief to the undocumented people in this country, the majority of which have already been living here for a long time.

The American Immigration Council has delineated with clarity what he can do within the law to stop the deportations of certain individuals. Obama’s Department of Homeland Security has the ability to grant "deferred actions" on deportations, and allow undocumented individuals with good moral character to apply for an Employment Authorization Documents, or work permits as they are usually known. These documents don't grant permanent residency or voting rights, but they can be useful in facilitating the immigrant integration process. With an EAD, undocumented immigrants would be able to work legally, apply for a driver’s license, and get a credit card. Nothing from Obama’s speech touched on this issue, showing that he's not willing to risk anything politically. His pretty words about keeping families together are just that.

Unfortunately for him, Obama's considerable rhetorical skills aren't enough to convince the immigrant community, and its many allied voters, that he's serious about immigration reform.

Pity him. It might cost him his re-election.


Matias Ramos
Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow