President Obama’s speech on immigration Tuesday was a significant demonstration that the second-term president has embraced a mandate that demands rights for marginalized people.
By making the argument that America has always been a nation of immigrants, he has taken the first step in reversing a tide of anti-Latino sentiment, stoked by Republican politicians as a vote-getting device for years.
Obama reminded us, “Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else.” He added: “It’s easy sometimes for the discussion [about immigration reform] to take on a feeling of us versus them … A lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them.”
The speech, made in Nevada, tacitly alluded to the role of Latinos in gaining him reelection. The Latino vote for Republicans, which once hovered at 40% in George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, had plummeted to barely 20% in 2012, and just a few weeks after the election, conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were sounding a tone of reconciliation—a grudging acceptance that new immigration legislation should be enacted.
And even though most Latinos are not undocumented immigrants and their number-one political issue is not immigration reform, the legislation is welcomed by second, third, and even fourth-generation Latino citizens who don’t want to be racially profiled as potential “illegals” or victimized by increasing anti-Latino hate crimes and general anti-Latino sentiment.
Obama’s demand for immediate action comes as a surprise since he was relatively quiet on the issue during his first term, and his administration has set a record for deportations of undocumented immigrants in the last four years.
Differing with Congressional Republicans on how much reform should be tied to militarization of the Southwest border, Obama is threatening to use his bully pulpit to insist on a vote on immigration reform if there are attempts to stall.
But much of this is still problematic. The backlog of visa applications and the slow approval process would make the path to citizenship long and arduous, up to 20 years.
The costs are not within the reach of many undocumented who have been in the U.S. for many years, living paycheck to paycheck, all the while paying payroll and sales taxes.
Seasonal, unskilled agricultural labor is on the fast track, as are those brought here as minors, known as “Dreamers,” and elite graduate students with an eye towards a career in engineering or high-tech.
But will the millions who have been suffering, living in fear of discovery for so long, be merely asked to step to the back of a very long line and an endless season of expensive legal paperwork just to prove their commitment to a country they have already made their home?
Why is it easier to ask the undocumented to submit to background checks than someone who wants to buy an assault rifle at a gun show?
What are the implications of an intensified militarization of the border, with the possibility of unmanned drones that have been used in Afghanistan?
Whether the average undocumented immigrant will gain significant advantage in a relatively short amount of time remains to be seen.
Immigration reform, like the president’s health care reform, will almost certainly be tainted by givebacks to appease a flatlining Republican constituency.
But if nothing else, Obama’s speech will be remembered as a landmark call for justice for Latinos and other immigrant groups.