President Barack Obama’s recent immigration speech, and his effort to forge a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, came too late — far too late, considering his party no longer has such tight control over Congress. Nevertheless, these efforts are welcome.
Obama’s solid, somber address at American University on July 1 is what we have been waiting for since he assumed the presidency 18 months ago. When he was a candidate for the presidency, Obama promised that he would support an immigration reform proposal in his first year of government. That promise has already been broken.
In this speech he told us what we already knew: many of the Senate Republicans who were once willing to support reform have reversed their positions.
It’s a pity that he did not speak earlier in his term, when he had 60 votes in the Senate. But it is welcome news that Obama will keep trying to fulfill his campaign promise. “I am ready to move forward,” he said last Thursday. And so we keep waiting, despite growing frustration in the Hispanic community.
I have received many e-mail and Twitter messages about the president’s speech. The general theme is that the Latino community is tired of speeches; it wants action.
Obama’s popularity among Hispanics dropped from 69 percent in January to 57 percent in May, according to the Gallup’s latest survey. The community looks on as a lack of action by the White House and by Congress allows states like Arizona to take the immigration issue into their own hands.
Arizona law SB 1070, which takes effect on July 29, will promote racism by allowing the police to detain individuals based only on the color of their skin or their accent. President Obama may be paving the way for a federal challenge to this law, but at the end of the day, it won’t be the president who makes the final decision; it will be his attorney general, Eric Holder.
Let us not forget that, though the president does not have the votes he needs in the Senate, he could have stopped the deportation of students and of the immigrant parents of American citizens. He could have applied pressure in Congress for the approval of the Dream Act before November, allowing thousands of undocumented young people to commence university studies. He could have called a summit of the leaders of both political parties, forcing them to face Hispanic voters before the midterm elections in November. He could have presented his own immigration bill, just as he promised during the presidential campaign. He didn’t do any of these things.
Still, the president’s speech was very good. I had never seen him so calm and direct. He cut to the chase and spoke to the fears of many Americans, making clear that most undocumented immigrants are not criminals, and that they tend to take jobs that would otherwise go unfilled.
In the speech’s best moment, Obama said that it was impossible to deport 11 million people. “Such an effort would be logistically impossible,” he said, and also, “it would tear at the very fabric of this nation.”
He also set very clear conditions for the potential legalization of those who are undocumented: pay fines and taxes, learn English and be ready to stand at the end of the line.
But speeches, even great speeches, are no longer enough. “The system is broken,” he said, and later: “Our task then is to make our national laws actually work – to shape a system that reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”Even if Americans are ready to accept the reality that we must to build a new system to address our current situation – which most are not – then immigrants hoping for fairness and justice still have a very long road ahead. In the 21st century, it is morally indefensible that the most powerful country on Earth persecutes those who are weakest and least protected.
A good speech. But the time for words is over.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
(Jun 22, 2010)