With State of the Union Address, President Takes Key Step Toward a National Conversation on Immigration Reform

January 25, 2012

By Victor C. Johnson

In November, NAFSA released a statement calling on President Obama to lead a national conversation on immigration reform. The president took an important step in that direction in last night’s State of the Union address.

The President has spent most of his first term responding to the immigration opponents’ position that they will not talk about immigration reform until enforcement is beefed up and the border is secured. He has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants and devoted unprecedented resources to our southwest border. Last night, the President cashed in that investment. He said,

"I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now."

We applaud the President for reminding the nation that this problem isn’t going to fix itself – and we simply must do the hard work of reforming our immigration laws.

The President’s use of the term “comprehensive immigration reform” is significant. Many, even in our own community, have shied away from the term, viewing it as too toxic. This is one of our perennial problems:  We let the other side dictate the terms of the debate, delegitimizing the words that describe real solutions to real problems, while somehow demagoguery about “amnesty for lawbreakers” remains okay. Last night, the president reminded us that the country’s interests do in fact require comprehensive immigration reform, and he placed it squarely on his agenda.

The President did acknowledge that “election-year politics” might keep “Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan,” calling instead for initial steps like passing the DREAM Act and easing the path to green cards for highly skilled immigrants. All of us must now turn up the heat on Congress to do these things. But we must not lose sight of the marker that the president laid down:  Our goal is comprehensive immigration reform.

The President has taken an essential step toward restarting the national conversation on immigration reform. But it is not enough—because, as we all know, Congress will be divided next year too, and the year after that. The acknowledgement that Congress is too divided to act in any given year is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Last night, President Obama laid out a vision for making America successful. He knows, as we do, that immigrants are essential to that vision. If comprehensive immigration reform is to happen next year or the year after—or ever—the president must begin now to have a conversation with the American people about why this is important. It will take a long time, because we have abandoned the debate for a long time. The time to start is now.

The President cannot let this drop after a line in the State of the Union. And neither can we. We must all redouble our efforts to reclaim this debate, and to help our country understand its stake in comprehensive immigration reform.


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