Obama’s El Paso Speech on Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Allow those who can benefit the US economy to realise the American dream. by Alan Desmond

By Alan Desmond,
UCC Law Faculty PhD student at University College Cork, Ireland.

Earlier this month Barack Obama delivered a speech on comprehensive reform of the US immigration system in, aptly enough, the border city of El Paso, Texas. Obama opened his speech with the predictable reference to the USA being a nation of immigrants. He highlighted the strong emotions that the issue of immigration elicits as one of the reasons it has been so difficult to reach a political consensus to reform “our broken immigration system.”

This may well be true, but Obama went on to utter a further 3000 words without mentioning a single new proposal as to how the USA’s broken immigration system might be fixed. Instead there was the heartwarming story of José Hernández, the Californian-born son of migrant farm workers who as a child worked on farms and despite not learning English till 12 managed to earn an engineering degree and went on to help develop a new type of digital medical imaging system. “That’s the American dream right there,” according to Obama.

But this is a dream whose realisation is being denied to hundreds of thousands of people as the Obama administration outdoes the Bush administration in terms of deportation. During the fiscal years of 2009 and 2010, almost 800,000 deportations were carried out. While Obama crowed about a 70% increase in the number of criminals being removed from the US, he also admitted that among those deported are “families who are just trying to earn a living, or bright, eager students, or decent people with the best of intentions.”

These bright students and decent people are, of course, subject to removal because they are undocumented. Indeed one of the most striking features of the USA’s broken immigration system is the presence of an estimated 11 million such undocumented immigrants.

Obama made repeated reference to this group throughout his speech, noting their particular vulnerability to exploitation. Indeed comprehensive immigration reform for Obama seems to consist primarily in dealing with different aspects of irregular immigration. Securing the border; holding accountable businesses that exploit undocumented workers; regularising the status of undocumented immigrants subject to stringent criteria; and making legal migration easier are the four medicaments which Obama prescribes to cure the ailing US immigration system.

Meanwhile state legislatures throughout the US endeavour to make the lives of immigrants in an irregular situation even more difficult by proposing laws which would, for example, make it a crime to knowingly rent to an undocumented immigrant and by allowing undocumented immigrants caught driving drunk to be charged with a felony where drunk-driving US citizens face only a misdemeanour charge.

States justify such legislative initiatives by reference to the failure of the federal government to move on immigration. If Obama’s El Paso speech acts as a catalyst for comprehensive federal action on immigration, it will deprive state legislatures of such an excuse in the future.

Somewhat disquietingly, however, Obama characterised the need for immigration reform largely as an “economic imperative.” While recent research confirms that a legalisation programme, as part of comprehensive immigration reform, would stimulate the US economy to the tune of $1.5 trillion in additional GDP over 10 years, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that immigrants are not simply economic units: they are human beings with the same fundamental human rights as citizens of any given jurisdiction. It is a moral imperative to facilitate regularisation of people who have been in the USA, or indeed any other State, for a significant period of time, regardless of their economic potential. Nowhere should this be more readily accepted than in a nation of immigrants.

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