Throughout the past two years, President Obama has repeatedly mentioned a need for America to "fix the broken immigration system." He's emphasized the importance of tight enforcement, as well as a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But while his administration has been holding down the enforcement front, deporting people in record numbers — 400,000 last year, compared to 117,000 in 2001 — he hadn't pitched a specific plan for comprehensive immigration reform.
"I can't do it by myself," he said during last month's Facebook town hall. "We're going to have to change the laws of Congress."
Obama continues to insist that his hands are tied by congressional inaction, despite cries from advocacy groups that he does in fact have executive authority to do something, such as stopping the deportation of some illegal immigrants. He's just choosing not to use that authority, preferring the legislative approach on such a divisive issue.
In a speech from the border community of El Paso, Texas on Tuesday, the president again urged Congress to move, this time providing a few ideas of his own. The administration also released a detailed blueprint (pdf) for what they want in an immigration bill.
Obama drew applause when he stated that most immigrants who are here illegally, whether through crossing the border or overstaying their visas, are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families. "But we have to acknowledge that they've broken the rules," he said. "The truth is, the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally."
The president further admonished employers who pay undocumented workers below minimum wage, and who cut corners on safety laws. "This puts companies who follow those rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime or just a safe place to work, at an unfair disadvantage," he said.
To this end, he framed immigration reform as an economic imperative. Getting rid of an underground economy that exploits cheap labor, he reasoned, would bring an end to depressed wages for everyone else. He also argued that making it easier for international students to stay here (many with engineering and computer science skills) would make America more competitive in the global economy.
Among other specific steps, President Obama promoted passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth brought here as children by their parents, if they commit two years in the military or college. He also proposed changing the visa system, which currently forbids applicants from visiting their families in the United States for years while they wait for approval.
But beyond the president's smaller proposals, such as having undocumented workers pay a fine and undergo background checks, he called for creating a new immigration system that is more fair and practical than the "outdated" version that's in play now.
After trumpeting his administration's enforcement record — with the most border patrol agents in history, and a significant drop in people attempting to cross the border illegally — Obama invited Republican legislators to come to the table. "We have to put the politics aside," he said. "If we do, I'm confident we'll find common ground."
Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told The Root that getting Congress to come together on this will require a heavy lift. She also said it's a remote possibility, given the GOP push for immigration enforcement legislation.
"That will put the issue squarely back on Capitol Hill, and it will be an opportunity for lawmakers to be clear — whether they're for more than just enforcement, or whether they're going to try to deport their way out of the problem" she said. "The president stands on stronger ground there, because a comprehensive approach is the only way to solve it."
If Obama comes back empty-handed from Congress (and I suspect that he will), he has the Plan B of using executive power over what he can control — stopping the deportation of certain groups of immigrants. "There's a strong argument to be made, particularly in the case of the young people who would qualify under the DREAM Act, that some groups shouldn't be a priority for the Department of Homeland Security," said Kelley. "There are also military families, in which a spouse or parent is serving in our military even if they're undocumented themselves, that shouldn't be deported in my view. There is a lot of room for discretion about who he deports and who he doesn't."
Although cries of "political suicide" invariably surround this idea, Kelley doesn't think it would actually be all that explosive. "I don't think that the average American really wants to see their taxpayer dollars going to deport 18-year-old kids that came here when they were eight months old," she said. "The president could make a strong case that, in the absence of congressional will to solve the problem, he's using resources in a smart way. His focus would be on not tearing apart families, and not targeting those who are here illegally through no choice of their own. That feels like a safe space for him to go."
In terms of advancing the debate in Congress, Kelley was impressed that Obama's blueprint offers more detail than we've seen from the White House to date. "It makes writing a bill not so difficult if Democrats are so inclined to do that," she said. "This isn't a problem that lends itself to being solved by words; it needs legislative action. And I think the president's speech takes us closer in that direction."