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When it comes to immigration reform, Obama is all talk

President Obama delivers his immigration reform speech July 1 at American University.

President Obama delivers his immigration reform speech July 1 at American University.

Ever since Arizona passed SB 1070 in May and reignited the hysterical illegal immigration debate, President Obama has been urged by immigration reform advocates to take up the banner of reform as a counter to nativist fear mongering.

He finally dipped a toe into these turbulent waters Thursday with a speech at American University. And, typically for Obama, it was long on flowery rhetoric and professorial lecturing and short on specifics.

The speech was far more significant in what it didn’t say than what it did.

Read Speech Transcript

Once you cull out all the egghead disquisition, his speech boils down to the following tenets:

  • You can’t allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to stay without holding them accountable but you can’t round them up and deport them all, either.
  • The border is safer than ever but border enforcement alone won’t solve the problem.
  • Employers need a better system to verify the immigration status of employees. But more needs to be done.
  • Illegal immigrants already here should be allowed to pay back taxes, a fine and learn English to be placed on a “pathway” to “legal status.”
  • We need to improve our “creaky” legal immigration system.
  • Farmers need to be able to hire legal workers.
  • Children who were not born here and have illegal immigrant parents should be allowed to become citizens through the DREAM Act.
  • Republicans need to agree to this.

So here’s what he didn’t say in this speech or what is between the lines:

  • He’s not introducing a bill to accomplish any of the above, but he thinks some member of Congress should, preferably a Republican.
  • He didn’t say what the more was in the “we need to do more” to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, which is half the problem. “More” should entail hiring hundreds more investigators, but that’s expensive and we can’t afford it.
  • He didn’t qualify how pay-a-fine-for-legal-status will work. Will all 11 million get to pay a fine to be placed on the “pathway to legal status?” How much will the fine be? How will the government determine how much back tax needs to be paid to land on the “pathway?” Can someone else pay the fine for immigrants if they can’t afford it? And what does “pathway to legal status” mean? Does that mean citizenship? If it does, why didn’t he say so instead of the ambiguous “legal status?” If it doesn’t, is he talking about some new limbo form of legal residency? How long will those here illegally have to comply – a year? Two years? Does “learn English” mean just to speak it or read and write? Reading and writing will take years and who will pay for the classes? What happens if they can’t pass the English test? Deportation?
  • He didn’t say whether improving the “creaky” immigration system will include easing restrictions on legal immigration. Many of those already here don’t meet required minimums for education, literacy and English to earn work visas or permanent resident cards. And it’s these requirements that force so many laborers to cross illegally; they can’t get in otherwise. And it’s those requirements that make the nativist argument of “send them home and let them apply to come back legally” just empty, misleading rhetoric.
  • He didn’t say “Guest Worker Program.” Many labor unions are bitterly opposed to guest worker plans. Labor unions are one of his key constituencies. He said he wants farmers to be able to hire “legal” labor, but he didn’t say how. Without a guest worker plan, that will be hard to do. One of the reasons there are 11 million illegal residents here now is because many of them used to come here to work for a few months, or a few years, then go home. Now they don’t go home because it’s too hard, too costly and too dangerous to get back. If he’s not talking about a guest worker plan, than what is he talking about? What is “legal” farm labor? If he is talking about a temporary worker program, but wants to call it something else, which government agency will keep track of all of these temporary workers and make sure they go home when they’re supposed to? We already have millions who have overstayed their visas and no one in the government is keeping track of them.
  • The DREAM Act could have solved a lot of this problem a year ago but Republicans chickened out. If we want immigration reform, the Republicans are going to have to man up and help pass it. In other words, if immigration reform fails, it’s not his fault.
  • He didn’t say how all of this would be paid for. The country is broke. These reforms will cost billions. Will he use the fines to pay for it? Will he tax the rest of us? Start charging entrance and exit fees like many countries do?

All this speech does is state what everyone already knows – this is a really hard problem to solve – without proposing any real plans to solve it, especially not before the November elections.

When it comes to immigration reform, Obama is all talk and no action.

It was an elegant speech, though. If only that were enough.

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