In a speech he gave in DC, President Obama today made the case for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration system, which would focus on increased border protection, more accountability from businesses, and a pathway to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Obama said this hot-button topic often led to "demagoguery," but he again urged both parties in Congress to come together on this issue -- just as they did in 2006, when a bill sponsored by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) and Sen. John McCain (R) passed the Senate, only to eventually languish.
"The system is broken and everybody knows it," Obama told an audience of some 250 business, labor, and community leaders; immigration advocates; and law enforcement and elected officials at American University's School of International Service. "Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special interest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics."
The president's professorial, 35-minute speech -- in which he made the case for reform in a detailed, point-by-point argument -- came after he hosted two private meetings on back-to-back days this week at the White House to discuss immigration.
Obama said that several of the 11 Republican senators who had supported the 2006 effort had backed away under political pressure. And he added that in the absence of a bipartisan deal on this issue at the national level, states like Arizona had decided to take matters into their own hands, which threatened to create a patchwork of local immigration rules where one clear national standard is what is needed.
Arizona's law, which requires that police making lawful stops inquire about the immigration status of people suspected of being here illegally, is "ill-conceived" and "divisive," Obama said, arguing that it also puts pressure on local law enforcement to enforce rules that are unenforceable, strains state and local budgets, and drives a wedge between communities and law enforcement.
In noting the steps taken to increase border protection, the president said the government had doubled the personnel assigned to Border Enforcement Security Task Forces; tripled the number of intelligence analysts along the border; and was screening 100% of south-bound rail shipments to halt the transport of illegal guns, cash, and drugs.
"Today, we have more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history," Obama said. "So the bottom line is this: The southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past 20 years. That doesn't mean we don't have more work to do. We have to do that work, but it's important that we acknowledge the facts."
Obama called an overhaul not just an economic or political issue but a "moral imperative."
"I'm ready to move forward. The majority of Democrats are ready to move forward. And I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward," he said. "But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality."
The prospects for a comprehensive immigration bill passing Congress this year remain low in the current political climate, despite a framework put together by a bipartisan group of senators -- Lindsey Graham (R) and Chuck Schumer (D). And the president set no timeline today for passage of the sweeping changes he seeks.
Obama mentioned accomplished immigrants like Albert Einstein and Google co-founder Sergey Brin in talking about the contributions of immigrants who've helped America reap "incredible economic rewards." And he closed by quoting Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" -- the poem on the tablet of the Statue of Liberty. The president said it was up to each generation to ensure that the lamp she wrote about "continues to shine as a source of hope around the world, and a source of our prosperity here at home."