Billed as a major policy speech on immigration, President Barack Obama told an audience in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday that his administration had beefed up border security and gone beyond what Republicans said they wanted in order to support comprehensive reform.
President Obama shakes hands with people in the crowd following remarks on immigration reform in El Paso, Texas, on May 10. (Photo: Pete Souza, White House)
"[W]e have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible," said Obama, according to a prepared text available on the New York Times website. "[W]e now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history."
In his 12-minute speech at the Chamizal National Memorial, next to the Rio Grande, Obama said the border fence was "basically complete" and that his administration had "tripled the number of intelligence analysts working the border."
While blaming the politics of Washington for blocking comprehensive reform, he sharply criticized Republicans and urged those in Congress to put aside politics.
"They'll say we need a higher fence to support reform," said the president. "Maybe they'll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat. They'll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That's politics."
In two short paragraphs, Obama listed what comprehensive immigration reform would include.
"First, we know that government has a threshold responsibility to secure the borders and enforce the law. Second, businesses have to be held accountable if they exploit undocumented workers," he said. "Third, those who are here illegally have a responsibility as well. They have to admit that they broke the law, pay their taxes, pay a fine and learn English. And they have to undergo background checks and a lengthy process before they can get in line for legalization."
He added, "And fourth, stopping illegal immigration also depends on reforming our outdated system of legal immigration."
Obama said reform should include efforts that allow for reuniting families separated by the current system.
"[W]e should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents – by denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military," he said. "That's why we need to pass the Dream Act."
Passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill is unlikely given the partisan dynamics in Washington.
While federal immigration reform appears stalled, a number of anti-immigration bills have been introduced this year in state legislatures, many modeled after Arizona's SB 1070 passed in 2010.
That bill made it a crime for immigrants to fail to carry their documents. It gave law enforcement the authority to stop anyone suspected of being undocumented and begin the process of deportation.
Opponents saw the law as racial profiling.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the Arizona law, arguing that immigration was under the purview of the federal government.
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A federal judge temporarily blocked the Arizona law's implementation last July.
In April 2011, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th circuit refused to overturn the earlier ruling.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced May 9 that she will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal's decision.
Undeterred by the legal rulings against the Arizona law, anti-immigration bills surged into statehouses in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Georgia passed an Arizona-style bill in April that would punish undocumented immigrants for using false identification with up to 15 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. It also empowered law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants and take them to jail.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law this week.
Georgia's tourism industry is now trying to avoid the negative economic consequences that befell Arizona after SB 1070 was signed into law. Arizona lost an estimated $141 million due to economic boycotts.
In Tennessee, the state attorney general issued an opinion that a bill under consideration would likely be challenged in state and federal court.
An anti-immigration bill in Florida died as the legislative session ended, but Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott spoke about passing an immigration bill in the 2012 legislative session.
Meanwhile, in Alabama a joint House-Senate committee will work to reconcile two bills. The Senate's version would make it a crime, with a fine of up to $500, for an undocumented immigrant to seek work in the state.
A Huntsville Times editorial called the bills "mean-spirited" and said they were "driven by anger" more than "sound reasoning."