Opinion Columns & Blogs

Obama's immigration speech was all words, no action

Congratulations, President Obama, for finally making your first speech on immigration reform since taking office. Too bad that it was all words and no action, and that it won't help pass an immigration bill anytime soon.

Before we get into the things Obama should have said — but didn't — in his much-awaited July 1 address on immigration, let's give him credit for tackling one of the hottest issues in America and for doing it in a balanced way.

Obama called both for measures to secure U.S. borders and to establish an earned path to legal residency for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are willing to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine and learn English. And, countering the xenophobic-populist chatter on conservative radio and cable TV, he conceded that "it's not possible" to round up and deport 11 million people.

His main message was calling for Republican help to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, because Democrats don't have the votes needed to approve such a bill by themselves.

He criticized Republicans for backtracking on immigration reform because of fear of losing support from their constituents in the November congressional elections, noting that 11 Republican senators who previously supported a comprehensive solution "have now backed away from their previous support."

But Obama did nothing to move the debate forward beyond drawing greater public attention to it. Among the things he didn't say:

* Obama did not announce a public White House meeting that would include key Republicans, Democrats and representatives of civic and business groups who would try to seek a compromise on immigration reform — much the way he did when he started his campaign to pass health care reform.

* He did not use the occasion to formally announce a Justice Department challenge to the Arizona state law, which allows state and local police to check people's immigration status and to arrest them if they don't have proper documentation.

Such a challenge had been unofficially revealed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent interview. But Obama left it to Attorney General Eric Holder to make the official announcement, distancing himself some from the issue. Polls show most Americans support the Arizona law, while a majority also favor an earned path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants.

* Obama did not emphasize enough the economic case for fixing America's immigration system to help the United States be more competitive in the global economy.

* He did not mention the insanity of a recent case in which federal authorities were planning to deport undocumented Harvard University student Eric Balderas to Mexico, nor did he address New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent statement that "we're committing what I call national suicide" by not giving green cards to highly skilled foreign students.

According to "Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy," a new book by Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West, the United States grants only 15 percent of its visas to skilled workers, while Canada and Great Britain set aside 55 percent of their visas for skilled workers.

* Obama did not make any new proposals. He could have adopted some of West's proposals, such as giving automatic green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. universities in the fields of math, science and technology, but also reducing the number of immediate relatives foreigners can bring into the United States.

If visas were limited to immediate relatives of immigrants, rather than aunts, uncles and cousins, hundreds of thousands of visas would be freed up to attract individuals with special skills needed by American businesses, the book says.

My opinion: Obama's speech was an effort to maintain the support of U.S. Hispanics, who are increasingly frustrated by the president's failure to take action on immigration reform despite his campaign promises to do so. The Hispanic vote will be crucial for Obama's Democratic Party to avoid a defeat in November's congressional elections.

But Obama did not offer any carrots to Republicans, nor any new ideas to sway public opinion toward much-needed immigration reform. If he wants to convince us that he really means it, he should do for immigration reform what he did for health care reform, education reform and financial reform. That means spending some political capital on it — and taking action.