There is not much of President Barack Obama's speech on the matter of comprehensive immigration reform that can be criticized. He basically said all of the right things as far as immigrant advocates are concerned. But then again Obama has always been long on rhetoric but short on action, and not just related to the immigration issue. He is not known for walking the talk. Hobbling would be more like it. His comments were laudatory towards immigrants in recognition that "we define ourselves as a nation of immigrants," with the exception of its original inhabitants, the "first Americans," who he acknowledged were indigenous to the land. The president's observation that, "a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them," was a statement of the obvious.
However, when we review the past four years of Obama enforcement, border and interior, his performance defines him as the "us" and the 1.5 million (1,595,693 to date to be exact) deportees removed by his administration as the "them." This is a divide that President Obama created upon assuming the presidency, no one else. No other president since President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s has deported more migrants and separated more families, than President Obama. This will be his legacy in the history of America no matter how he attempts to repair the damage with his recent initiative.
The president reiterated that enforcement will continue to be a priority plank in any form of comprehensive immigration reform to come. "We need to stay focused on enforcement. That means continuing to strengthen the security on our borders, cracking down more forcefully on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers, implement a national system to quickly and accurately verify someone's employment status, and ramp up the penalties," ad nauseam.
This kind of language is reflective of the administration's policies and practices towards the undocumented. CIR based on this approach is premised on the permanent criminalization of immigrants and their criminality as a workforce. According to the president little will change in this respect.
Liberals will argue that the president was forced down this road due to the recalcitrance of the Republicans to consider any reform proposals without demonstrable evidence of curbing unauthorized entry into the country. And, conservatives will rant that the president hasn't done enough to seal the "porous" border, notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. Obama has gone over the top to placate the political right at the expense of immigrant families. But, they are not to be satisfied.
While undocumented workers are tagged as criminals, such is not the case with their work product consumed by America or exported abroad, the profits they produce for their employers, or the taxes they contribute to the country's tax base, not to mention their own consumption.
Most immigrant advocates lauded President Obama's speech as an auspicious beginning in his down-payment commitment for reform. They like to believe. We all like to believe. But, four years of detentions and deportations have made us more than cautious.
A bipartisan group of eight senators beat the president by a day with their own blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. While the senators recognize that some form of legalization is now an acceptable alternative to the forced removal of millions of immigrants, a path to citizenship is more dubious. They have tentatively preconditioned permanent residency and citizenship for the undocumented to the certification of successful border and workplace enforcement, a new visa exit program, and first clearing the back-log of existing green-card applicants. These are extremely difficult thresholds to meet.
The fact that prominent Republicans are now in the play is more an outcome of last year's elections and the Latino and Asian lopsided vote for the president, than a change in ideology. Senator John McCain said as much. It's the "Hispanic" vote, stupid. He fears that the Latino vote will be lost to the GOP in perpetuity, and thus make his party irrelevant in national elections.
Needless to say, the devil is in the details on both scores - Obama's proposals and the bipartisan committee's framework. The dilemma for the immigrant rights community is which devil can be trusted.