President Obama began his immigration speech to the nation with a lie, then alternated between appeasing and taunting his critics, and wrapped up with a poetic truth.
Not bad for a 15-minute speech. Obama managed to shrink-wrap the nation’s love/hate relationship with immigrants for primetime. He digested our 200-plus years of history down to a series of sound bites and threw down the gauntlet to the incoming Republican majority in Congress to fix the problems.
“My fellow Americans, tonight I’d like to talk with you about immigration … our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world,” the president said to open his address.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. We Americans love immigrant labor — the cheaper, the better — but the immigrants themselves, not so much. Here’s how the game is played. We let immigrant labor in when it suits us, denounce it out the other side of our mouths for political advantage, and then claim ignorance when it’s pointed out that we’ve rigged the system for legal entry so only a few can ever succeed.
Beyond the labor they supply, we don’t welcome them as potential fellow citizens. Not at first, anyway. There has always been cultural backlash — yes, even to those past waves of Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews and other folks who were the ancestors of many a modern American patriot.
Among the first immigration laws was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which aimed to halt immigration from that nation and to bar Chinese immigrants from re-entering the country if they left. This after Chinese laborers helped build the railroads.
Scapegoating immigrants is a recurring theme in our nation’s history. Much political benefit could be won by decrying the fundamental cultural unfitness of this or that ethnic group to assimilate. Laws were periodically passed in the late 19th and early 20th century to restrict Jews, Italians, Africans and other Asians from legally coming to our shores. It should surprise no one that some of these laws gave rise to immigrant smuggling.
But let’s give the president his conceit, because all of these immigrant communities did what immigrants do: They built their wealth, paid their taxes, contributed to economic growth and became solid citizens.
The irony of Obama’s plan of executive action — and the rolling freak-out it has engendered among Republicans — is that it doesn’t offer a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants residing in this country. It doesn’t solve their status in limbo but merely alleviates the threat of deportation for about half of them, about 5 million people.
Republican barking about the president’s plan is a ploy in this old game. House Speaker John Boehner called it an example of his “lawlessness.”
No, it’s more likely the opposite. It would mean that, for the first time in decades, many of the people who work in our agricultural fields, packing houses and restaurants could do so legally. Americans eat well everyday because an illegal immigrant did work that not enough of us native-born citizens are willing to do, for any wage.
The nation has known for weeks what the basics of Obama’s plan would be. The parents of U.S. citizens or long-term legal residents can apply for temporary legal status that protects them from deportation. Applicants need to have been here for at least five years and to have a clean criminal record.
In his rollout, Obama threw in mentions of the U.S. as a “nation of laws” and stressed the “rule of law,” both favorite themes of Republicans. They like to frame undocumented people as “law-breakers,” while conveniently ignoring that the laws currently in place all but ensure people will land into that classification.
For many low-wage workers, there is no route to legal entry. It’s not a matter of people being unwilling to wait for years, unwilling to fill out the right form or pay a fee. The door isn’t open to them. Increasingly, this is a problem for highly skilled workers too.
Congress can fix it.
If it does nothing, it will scorn the self-evident benefits of immigrant labor and entrepreneurship and all but ensure that undocumented immigration will continue to be a problem.
Worse still, it will keep in place the hardships many families must bear simply because some members are undocumented — even though in every other respect they contribute to the common good of our country. Obama gracefully stressed that these immigrants are not political pawns but rather real people, with families.
“We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration,” he said. “We need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears.”
The door is open for the new Congress to meet that long-unanswered challenge.