Obama's immigration executive order is a game changer

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On Thursday evening, President Obama addressed the nation with an outline of the executive action he is taking on immigration.  In his 10-minute address, the president outlined his plan to fix a broken system and, a combination of accountability and compassion, while also challenging Congress to do its part and pass legislation.

The speech was not broadcast on the major networks, but was aired on a number of cable outlets, including MSNBC, CNN, and on Univision, which delayed its broadcast of the Latin Grammy Awards to air the president’s remarks.

In his speech, the president sought a reasonable middle ground that falls short of complete amnesty for undocumented immigrants, yet offers deportation relief for up to 5 million people, allowing families who have lived in the country to remain here.

“I know some of the critics of the action call it amnesty. Well, it’s the not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today,” Obama said. “Millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time. That’s the real amnesty, leaving this broken system the way it is. Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary it to our character,” the president added.

Under Obama’s executive plan, more resources will be deployed to the border, with an emphasis on deporting undocumented immigrants who recently crossed the border. And resources will be focused on deporting felons as opposed to the families of U.S. citizens.

Also a part of the president’s plan is increased accountability for millions, with a requirement that undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been here five or more years undergo a background check and pay taxes to remain in the country.  Further, there will be expanded work authorization for high-skilled workers waiting for a green card.

At the same time, Obama placed the onus on Republicans in Congress to pass fair and just immigration reform legislation.  “Overall the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts. Meanwhile, I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix. And last year 68 Democrats, Republicans, and independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate,” the president said.

“It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise. But it reflected common sense. It would have doubled the number of Border Patrol agents, while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes and went to the back of the line. And independent experts said that it would help grow our economy and shrink our deficits.”

“Had the House of Representatives allowed that kind of bill a simple yes or no vote, it would have passed with support from both parties. And today it would be the law. But for a year and a half now Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simple vote,” Obama added.

The president’s plan, while not amounting to comprehensive immigration reform, is rather significant, and a game changer that transforms the debate on a contentious and polarizing issue.  Reactions from the immigrants’ rights and Latino communities were positive.

“I thought it was very compelling, very powerful and very reaffirming.  For us this moment is a milestone moment,  I think for so many it’s a victory for so many millions of American families who have lived in the shadows with the burden of what that means,” said Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, on MSNBC.  According to Murguía, who once called Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief” due to the nation’s current immigration policy, the president’s speech was an important moment for the country and one of the most significant changes in decades.

Murguía also cautioned Obama’s opponents in Congress. “I would just warn those who want to fight the president tooth and nail on this, that they’re gonna be fighting not with the president or taking on the president.  Now they’re going to be taking on those millions of families who really have already been contributing and who understand what is at stake here going forward into the future,” she warned. “And so I hope they find a way to make a constructive step and offer legislation and offer a permanent solution, because for so many families this is going to be transformative.”

“First of all, stop whining and crying about what he president did tonight,” offered Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a vocal proponent of immigration reform, addressing the Republicans.  Gutierrez argued the GOP had an opportunity to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and challenged them to act if they do not like the president’s plan.

“I think what the president did tonight was wonderful because a community of people that have been demonized during the last election, one senator after another, one member of the House on the Republican side after another, used the porous border coming with criminal Mexicans and then saying that Ebola was coming, and ISIS, to win their election,” Gutiérrez said.

“Tonight the president humanized that community of people. And I think that’s the debate and discussion the Republican Party is afraid of.”

President Obama succeeded in putting a face on the immigration issue.  And her name is Astrid Silva, whom Obama plans to meet in Las Vegas on Friday.  Silva, who is working on her third college degree, came to America from Mexico when she was 4 years old.  When her grandmother back in Mexico passed away, Silva could not return for her funeral without risking deportation.  “Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid? Or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in?” the president asked.

“Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too.”

The president also succeeded in accomplishing other things Thursday night.  Offering legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants in exchange for accountability, Obama pressed the reset button on immigration.  Aware his Republican detractors would not take action, he took matters in his own hands and broke the stalemate.  He framed the rounding up and deportation of millions of people—most of whom have lived in America for years and become a part of the fabric of the nation, and many of whose children were born here—not only as unrealistic, but as un-American and immoral.

Moreover, from the standpoint of pure politics, by presenting the public with a reasonable, albeit temporary solution to a longstanding problem, President Obama has neutralized so-called “illegal” immigration as a hot button issue that conservatives use to scapegoat and criminalize the Latino community, and divide people by race, ethnicity, language and national origin.  And in the process of bolstering his own bona fides and exerting his authority as president, he put the ball in the Republicans’ court.

Latino- and Asian-Americans are important Democratic constituencies that voted for Obama in large numbers, and the presidential action will only strengthen their support.

Ultimately, the activists and the “Dreamers” who pressed Obama to act now on immigration reform can claim victory.  So too, can President Obama.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove

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