Immigration in the Second Obama Term


Presidents often mention immigration in their inaugural addresses in words that seem to consign immigrants to the gauzy past. Ellis Island and the Pilgrims are hustled onto the rhetorical stage, soon to be pushed off again. When contemporary immigrants are mentioned, they are typically merely props to demonstrate how great America must be that it can attract people from all over the world.

President Obama took a dramatically different approach Monday. He spoke of immigrants as people forced to confront a broken immigration system which keeps them out or forces them underground. He also reminded Americans that our failure to pass the DREAM Act or come up with a compromise allowing science and engineering graduates to remain here results in the United States telling some of the world’s best and brightest to go home. Here were the poetic words the president used:

Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

Movement towards immigration reform is already underway. Cecilia Munoz, who helped organize the Long Island Immigrant Alliance in its early days, is now a top White House aide who is in charge of shepherding a reform bill through the legislative process. Senator Chuck Schumer is leading a bipartisan group of eight senators working to hammer out a compromise that can pass in the Senate. Marco Rubio is creating a space for Republican conservatives to begin to talk about immigration in terms other than those of “self-deportation.”

The Obama team is actively molding public opinion to favor reform with a path to citizenship. Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hilda Solis and others all made major statements in favor of reform in the last ten days. The president’s action group, Organizing for America is taking up the cause as well.

Last week three conservative interest groups, Evangelicals, police, and business all weighed in with visits to Congress on behalf of immigrants. The anti-immigrant groups, who had won the battle last summer to insert a harsh immigration plank into the Republican platform, may have in fact lost the war. When that platform derailed the party nationally, many Republican elected officials said publically that a nativist approach would doom the party to permanent minority status.

We should see a big, inclusive immigration bill within the next 60 days. Get ready.

[Photo: Mary Ellen Cosenza]

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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