President Obama on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

President Obama on Comprehensive Immigration Reform


The President:
Thank you. (applause) Everyone please have a seat. Thank you very much. Let me thank Pastor Hybels from
near my hometown in Chicago, who took time off his
vacation to be here today. We are blessed to have him. I want to thank President Neil
Kerwin and our hosts here at American University; acknowledge
my outstanding Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, and
members of my administration; all the members of Congress
— Hilda deserves applause. (applause) To all the members of Congress,
the elected officials, faith and law
enforcement, labor, business leaders and immigration
advocates who are here today — thank you for your presence. I want to thank American
University for welcoming me to the campus once again. Some may recall that the last
time I was here I was joined by a dear friend, and a giant
of American politics, Senator Edward Kennedy. (applause) Teddy’s not here right now, but
his legacy of civil rights and health care and worker
protections is still with us. I was a candidate for
President that day, and some may recall I argued
that our country had reached a tipping point; that after years
in which we had deferred our most pressing problems, and too
often yielded to the politics of the moment, we now faced a
choice: We could squarely confront our challenges with
honesty and determination, or we could consign ourselves
and our children to a future less prosperous and less secure. I believed that then
and I believe it now. And that’s why, even as we’ve
tackled the most severe economic crisis since the
Great Depression, even as we’ve wound down the
war in Iraq and refocused our efforts in Afghanistan, my
administration has refused to ignore some of the fundamental
challenges facing this generation. We launched the most aggressive
education reforms in decades, so that our children can gain
the knowledge and skills they need to compete in a 21st
century global economy. We have finally delivered on
the promise of health reform — reform that will bring greater
security to every American, and that will rein in the
skyrocketing costs that threaten families, businesses and the
prosperity of our nation. We’re on the verge of reforming
an outdated and ineffective set of rules governing
Wall Street — to give greater power to
consumers and prevent the reckless financial speculation
that led to this severe recession. And we’re accelerating the
transition to a clean energy economy by significantly raising
the fuel-efficiency standards of cars and trucks, and by doubling
our use of renewable energies like wind and solar power — steps that have the potential to create whole new industries and hundreds of thousands of new jobs in America. So, despite the forces
of the status quo, despite the polarization and
the frequent pettiness of our politics, we are confronting the
great challenges of our times. And while this work isn’t easy,
and the changes we seek won’t always happen overnight, what
we’ve made clear is that this administration will not just
kick the can down the road. Immigration reform
is no exception. In recent days, the issue of
immigration has become once more a source of fresh
contention in our country, with the passage of a
controversial law in Arizona and the heated reactions
we’ve seen across America. Some have rallied
behind this new policy. Others have protested and
launched boycotts of the state. And everywhere, people have
expressed frustration with a system that seems
fundamentally broken. Of course, the tensions around
immigration are not new. On the one hand, we’ve always
defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants — a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts. Indeed, it is this constant flow
of immigrants that helped to make America what it is. The scientific breakthroughs
of Albert Einstein, the inventions of Nikola Tesla,
the great ventures of Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel and
Sergey Brin’s Google, Inc. — all this was possible
because of immigrants. And then there are the countless
names and the quiet acts that never made the history books but
were no less consequential in building this country — the generations who braved hardship and great risk to reach our shores in search of a better life for themselves
and their families; the millions of people, ancestors to most of us, who believed that there was
a place where they could be, at long last, free to work and
worship and live their lives in peace. So this steady stream of
hardworking and talented people has made America the engine of
the global economy and a beacon of hope around the world. And it’s allowed us to adapt
and thrive in the face of technological and
societal change. To this day, America reaps
incredible economic rewards because we remain a magnet for
the best and brightest from across the globe. Folks travel here in the hopes
of being a part of a culture of entrepreneurship and ingenuity,
and by doing so they strengthen and enrich that culture. Immigration also means we
have a younger workforce — and a faster-growing economy
— than many of our competitors. And in an increasingly
interconnected world, the diversity of our country is
a powerful advantage in global competition. You know, just a few weeks
ago, we had an event of small business owners at
the White House. And one business owner was a
woman named Prachee Devadas who came to this country,
became a citizen, and opened up a successful
technology services company. When she started, she
had just one employee. Today, she employs more
than a hundred people. This past April, we held a
naturalization ceremony at the White House for members
of our armed forces. Even though they were not yet
citizens, they had enlisted. One of them was a woman
named Perla Ramos — born and raised in Mexico, came
to the United States shortly after 9/11, and she
eventually joined the Navy. And she said, “I take pride in
our flag and the history that forged this great nation and the
history we write day by day.” These women, and men and women
across this country like them, remind us that immigrants have
always helped to build and defend this country — and
that being an American is not a matter of blood or birth. It’s a matter of faith. It’s a matter of fidelity to the
shared values that we all hold so dear. That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes us strong. Anybody can help us write the
next great chapter in our history. Now, we can’t forget that this
process of immigration and eventual inclusion has
often been painful. Each new wave of immigrants has
generated fear and resentments towards newcomers, particularly
in times of economic upheaval. Our founding was rooted in the
notion that America was unique as a place of refuge
and freedom for, in Thomas Jefferson’s words,
“oppressed humanity.” But the ink on our Constitution
was barely dry when, amidst conflict, Congress passed
the Alien and Sedition Acts, which placed harsh restrictions
of those suspected of having foreign allegiances. A century ago, immigrants
from Ireland, Italy, Poland, other European countries were
routinely subjected to rank discrimination and
ugly stereotypes. Chinese immigrants were held
in detention and deported from Angel Island in the
San Francisco Bay. They didn’t even get to come in. So the politics of who is and
who is not allowed to enter this country, and on what terms,
has always been contentious. And that remains true today. And it’s made worse by a failure
of those of us in Washington to fix a broken immigration system. To begin with, our borders
have been porous for decades. Obviously, the problem is
greatest along our Southern border, but it’s not restricted
to that part of the country. In fact, because we don’t do a
very good job of tracking who comes in and out of the
country as visitors, large numbers avoid immigration
laws simply by overstaying their visas. The result is an estimated 11
million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The overwhelming majority of
these men and women are simply seeking a better life for
themselves and their children. Many settle in low-wage sectors
of the economy; they work hard, they save, they
stay out of trouble. But because they
live in the shadows, they’re vulnerable to
unscrupulous businesses who pay them less than the minimum wage
or violate worker safety rules — thereby putting companies
who follow those rules, and Americans who rightly demand
the minimum wage or overtime, at an unfair advantage. Crimes go unreported as victims
and witnesses fear coming forward. And this makes it harder for
the police to catch violent criminals and keep
neighborhoods safe. And billions in tax revenue are
lost each year because many undocumented workers are
paid under the table. More fundamentally, the presence
of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who
are going through the process of immigrating legally. Indeed, after years of patchwork
fixes and ill-conceived revisions, the legal immigration
system is as broken as the borders. Backlogs and bureaucracy means
the process can take years. While an applicant
waits for approval, he or she is often forbidden
from visiting the United States — which means even husbands
and wives may be forced to spend many years apart. High fees and the need for
lawyers may exclude worthy applicants. And while we provide students
from around the world visas to get engineering and computer
science degrees at our top universities, our laws
discourage them from using those skills to start a business or
power a new industry right here in the United States. Instead of training
entrepreneurs to create jobs on our shores, we train
our competition. In sum, the system is broken. And everybody knows it. 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. Just a few years ago,
when I was a senator, we forged a bipartisan coalition
in favor of comprehensive reform. Under the leadership
of Senator Kennedy, who had been a longtime
champion of immigration reform, and Senator John McCain, we
worked across the aisle to help pass a bipartisan bill
through the Senate. But that effort
eventually came apart. And now, under the pressures of
partisanship and election-year politics, many of the 11
Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now
backed away from their previous support. Into this breach, states like
Arizona have decided to take matters into their own hands. Given the levels of frustration
across the country, this is understandable. But it is also ill conceived. And it’s not just that the law
Arizona passed is divisive — although it has fanned the
flames of an already contentious debate. Laws like Arizona’s put
huge pressures on local law enforcement to enforce
rules that ultimately are unenforceable. It puts pressure on already
hard-strapped state and local budgets. It makes it difficult for people
here illegally to report crimes — driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more
dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult. And you don’t have to
take my word for this. You can speak to the police
chiefs and others from law enforcement here today who
will tell you the same thing. These laws also have the
potential of violating the rights of innocent American
citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible
stops or questioning because of what they look like
or how they sound. And as other states and
localities go their own ways, we face the prospect that
different rules for immigration will apply in different
parts of the country — a patchwork of local immigration
rules where we all know one clear national
standard is needed. Our task then is to make our
national laws actually work — to shape a system that reflects
our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. And that means being
honest about the problem, and getting past the false
debates that divide the country rather than bring it together. For example, there are those in
the immigrants’ rights community who have argued passionately
that we should simply provide those who are illegally
with legal status, or at least ignore the laws on
the books and put an end to deportation until
we have better laws. And often this argument is
framed in moral terms: Why should we punish people who are
just trying to earn a living? I recognize the sense of
compassion that drives this argument, but I believe such an
indiscriminate approach would be both unwise and unfair. It would suggest to those
thinking about coming here illegally that there will be
no repercussions for such a decision. And this could lead to a surge
in more illegal immigration. And it would also ignore the
millions of people around the world who are waiting in
line to come here legally. Ultimately, our nation,
like all nations, has the right and obligation to
control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship. And no matter how decent they
are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these
laws should be held accountable. Now, if the majority of
Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also
skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport
11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be
logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the
very fabric of this nation — because immigrants who are here
illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric. Many have children who
are American citizens. Some are children themselves,
brought here by their parents at a very young age, growing
up as American kids, only to discover their illegal
status when they apply for college or a job. Migrant workers —
mostly here illegally — have been the labor force of
our farmers and agricultural producers for generations. So even if it was possible, a
program of mass deportations would disrupt our economy and
communities in ways that most Americans would
find intolerable. Now, once we get past the
two poles of this debate, it becomes possible
to shape a practical, common-sense approach that
reflects our heritage and our values. Such an approach demands
accountability from everybody — from government, from businesses
and from individuals. Government has a threshold
responsibility to secure our borders. That’s why I directed my
Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano — a
former border governor — to improve our enforcement
policy without having to wait for a new law. Today, we have more boots on the
ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history. Let me repeat that: We have
more boots on the ground on the Southwest border than at
any time in our history. We doubled the personnel
assigned to Border Enforcement Security Task Forces. We tripled the number of
intelligence analysts along the border. For the first time, we’ve begun
screening 100% of southbound rail shipments. And as a result, we’re
seizing more illegal guns, cash and drugs
than in years past. Contrary to some of the
reports that you see, crime along the border is down. And statistics collected by
Customs and Border Protection reflect a significant reduction
in the number of people trying to cross the border illegally. 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. Even as we are committed to
doing what’s necessary to secure our borders, even without
passage of the new law, there are those who argue that
we should not move forward with any other elements of reform
until we have fully sealed our borders. But our borders are just too
vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with
fences and border patrols. It won’t work. Our borders will not be secure
as long as our limited resources are devoted to not only stopping
gangs and potential terrorists, but also the hundreds of
thousands who attempt to cross each year simply to find work. That’s why businesses must be
held accountable if they break the law by deliberately hiring
and exploiting undocumented workers. We’ve already begun to step up
enforcement against the worst workplace offenders. And we’re implementing and
improving a system to give employers a reliable way to
verify that their employees are here legally. But we need to do more. We cannot continue just to look
the other way as a significant portion of our economy
operates outside the law. It breeds abuse
and bad practices. It punishes employers who act
responsibly and undercuts American workers. And ultimately, if the demand
for undocumented workers falls, the incentive for people to come
here illegally will decline as well. Finally, we have to demand
responsibility from people living here illegally. They must be required to admit
that they broke the law. They should be required to
register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. They must get right with the law
before they can get in line and earn their citizenship —
not just because it is fair, not just because it will make clear to those who might wish to come to America they must do
so inside the bounds of the law, but because this is how we demonstrate that being — what being an American means. Being a citizen of this country
comes not only with rights but also with certain fundamental
responsibilities. We can create a pathway for
legal status that is fair, reflective of our
values, and works. Now, stopping illegal
immigration must go hand in hand with reforming our creaky
system of legal immigration. We’ve begun to do that, by
eliminating a backlog in background checks that at one
point stretched back almost a year. That’s just for the
background check. People can now track the
status of their immigration applications by email
or text message. We’ve improved accountability
and safety in the detention system. And we’ve stemmed the increases
in naturalization fees. But here, too, we
need to do more. We should make it easier for the
best and the brightest to come to start businesses and develop
products and create jobs. Our laws should respect
families following the rules — instead of splitting them apart. We need to provide farms a legal
way to hire the workers they rely on, and a path for those
workers to earn legal status. And we should stop punishing
innocent young people for the actions of their parents by
denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and
contribute their talents to build the country
where they’ve grown up. The DREAM Act would do this, and
that’s why I supported this bill as a state legislator
and as a U.S. senator — and why I continue to
support it as president. So these are the essential
elements of comprehensive immigration reform. The question now is whether we
will have the courage and the political will to pass
a bill through Congress, to finally get it done. Last summer, I held a meeting
with leaders of both parties, including many of the
Republicans who had supported reform in the past —
and some who hadn’t. I was pleased to see a
bipartisan framework proposed in the Senate by Senators Lindsey
Graham and Chuck Schumer, with whom I met to
discuss this issue. I’ve spoken with the
Congressional Hispanic Caucus to plot the way forward and meet — and then I met with them earlier this week. And I’ve spoken with
representatives from a growing coalition of labor unions
and business groups, immigrant advocates and
community organizations, law enforcement,
local government — all who recognize the importance
of immigration reform. And I’ve met with leaders from
America’s religious communities, like Pastor Hybels — people
of different faiths and beliefs, some liberal, some conservative, who nonetheless share a sense of urgency; who understand that
fixing our broken immigration system is not only
a political issue, not just an economic issue, but
a moral imperative as well. So we’ve made progress. 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. 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 only way to reduce the risk
that this effort will again falter because of politics is
if members of both parties are willing to take responsibility
for solving this problem once and for all. And, yes, this is an
emotional question, and one that lends
itself to demagoguery. Time and again, this issue has
been used to divide and inflame — and to demonize people. And so the understandable, the
natural impulse among those who run for office is to turn away
and defer this question for another day, or another year,
or another administration. Despite the courageous
leadership in the past shown by many Democrats and
some Republicans — including, by the way, my
predecessor, President Bush — this has been the custom. That is why a broken and
dangerous system that offends our most basic American
values is still in place. But I believe we can put
politics aside and finally have an immigration system
that’s accountable. I believe we can appeal not to
people’s fears but to their hopes, to their highest ideals,
because that’s who we are as Americans. It’s been inscribed on our
nation’s seal since we declared our independence. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one. That is what has drawn the
persecuted and impoverished to our shores. That’s what led the innovators
and risk-takers from around the world to take a chance here
in the land of opportunity. That’s what has led people to
endure untold hardships to reach this place called America. One of the largest waves of
immigration in our history took place little more
than a century ago. At the time, Jewish people were
being driven out of Eastern Europe, often escaping to the
sounds of gunfire and the light from their villages
burning to the ground. The journey could take months,
as families crossed rivers in the dead of night,
traveled miles by foot, endured a rough and dangerous
passage over the North Atlantic. Once here, many made their homes
in a teeming and bustling Lower Manhattan. It was at this time that a
young woman named Emma Lazarus, whose own family fled
persecution from Europe generations earlier, took up the
cause of these new immigrants. Although she was a poet,
she spent much of her time advocating for better health
care and housing for the newcomers. And inspired by what
she saw and heard, she wrote down her thoughts and
donated a piece of work to help pay for the construction
of a new statue — the Statue of Liberty — which actually was funded in part by small donations from
people across America. Years before the
statue was built — years before it would be seen by
throngs of immigrants craning their necks skyward at the end
of long and brutal voyage, years before it would come to
symbolize everything that we cherish — she imagined
what it could mean. She imagined the sight of a
giant statue at the entry point of a great nation — but unlike the great monuments of the past, this would not signal an empire. Instead, it would signal
one’s arrival to a place of opportunity and
refuge and freedom. “Here at our sea-washed, sunset
gates shall stand,” she wrote, “A mighty woman with a torch… From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome… ‘Keep, ancient lands,
your storied pomp!’… ‘Give me your tired,
and your poor, Your huddled masses
yearning to be free… Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside
the golden door!'” Let us remember these words. For it falls on each generation
to ensure that that lamp — that beacon — continues to shine as a source of hope around the world, and a source of
our prosperity here at home. Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the
United States of America. Thank you. (applause)

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