Obama on Immigration Reform – A Broken Record?

During his election campaign in 2008, President Obama vowed to make immigration reform one of his administration’s priorities. Three years hence, many are still waiting to see if he will ever make good on his promise.

President Obama gave a major speech on immigration in El Paso, Texas on May 10, 2011. He explained the political reality that immigration is so complex and divisive an issue and complained that good faith efforts from Democratic and Republican parties alike have fallen prey to the “usual Washington games”.

In pitching immigration reform, Obama made the case that it would make America more competitive by attracting and retaining talent and strengthen the middle class by eliminating the underground economy comprised of undocumented workers. He acknowledged that the system is broken but asked, along with everyone else, whether our officials would ever summon the will to do something about it.

Reiterating his call on Republicans to do their part, the President outlined the concessions that he had made, including the increase in border security, completion of the border fence, enforcement measures that target employers, and a deportation scheme that focuses on criminals.

The best step to take, said the President in his speech, was to fix the broken system as a whole. His version of comprehensive immigration reform would have at least four main features. First, the government would continue to secure the borders and enforce the law. Second, businesses would be held accountable for exploiting undocumented workers.

Third, a legalization scheme would require undocumented immigrants to admit their violation of the law and pay their taxes, pay a fine, learn English, and undergo a lengthy process that includes background checks.

Fourth, the legal immigration system would also be reformed. Obama wanted talented individuals to be able to study in the U.S., as well as start businesses and create jobs. He also expressed that farm workers need a path to legal status. He recognized that families following the rules and enduring long waiting times separated from one another must be reunited more quickly. Finally, he affirmed his conviction that the Dream Act should be passed by Congress.

While many immigration advocates appreciate the commitment, they cannot help but doubt Obama’s sincerity and wonder if he only revisited this issue because he needs votes for next year’s election. Is it all rhetoric? Is this a case of saying something but doing another?

In 2009, almost 390,000 immigrants were deported – an average of 1,100 deportations per day. Studies have shown that the current cost of deportation is $18,302 per person. The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today is estimated at 12 million.

If his administration were as committed to achieving reform, why can’t President Obama take executive action? Until a comprehensive immigration reform law is passed, the executive branch can come up with policies, programs and procedures that can in a limited but significant way fix one or more problems in the current immigration system. After all, immigration laws are administered by the federal government.

President Obama has the power to authorize executive action but he has for the most part refused to exercise it despite mounting calls for him to do so. For example, we have yet to see if he will authorize deferred departure of Dream Act students who are in removal proceedings and expand waivers for illegal immigrants with immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens.

While our Representatives are mired in partisan politics, President Obama can start fixing what Congress cannot by the mere signing of an Executive Order.

Immigration reform has taken a back seat to other key points in his presidential agenda, such as health care reform and economic policy. With the clock ticking on his term, President Obama is urged to go beyond mere pronouncements and to lead the push for comprehensive immigration reform, lest he become another poster child for the usual games that those in Washington play.