Speaking in El Paso, Texas today, President Barack Obama made the case for comprehensive immigration reform, contending that providing a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants will improve U.S. security as well as the economy. He outlined the work his administration has done to increase border security, and asserted that with security issues dealt with, it is time to find a permanent solution that will help the nation's economy.
From his prepared remarks:
Under Secretary Napolitano's leadership, we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible. They wanted more agents on the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history. The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents—more than twice as many as there were in 2004, a build up that began under President Bush and that we have continued.
They wanted a fence. Well, that fence is now basically complete.
And we've gone further. We tripled the number of intelligence analysts working the border. I've deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the skies from Texas to California. We've forged a partnership with Mexico to fight the transnational criminal organizations that have affected both of our countries. And for the first time we are screening 100 percent of southbound rail shipments—to seize guns and money going south even as we go after drugs coming north.
On the economy:
Think about it. Over the past decade, even before the recession, middle class families were struggling to get by as costs went up but incomes didn't. We're seeing this again with gas prices. Well, one way to strengthen the middle class is to reform our immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everyone else. I want incomes for middle class families to rise again. I want prosperity in this country to be widely shared. That's why immigration reform is an economic imperative.
And reform will also help make America more competitive in the global economy. Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States. So instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs in America, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can get—not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contributions will benefit all Americans.
To achieve that, the White House has released the Blueprint for Building a 21st Century Immigration System (pdf), following this outline:
- Responsibility by the federal government to secure our borders: Today, our borders are more secure than at any time in the past several decades and the Administration continues to refine and strengthen its strategy. Enforcement resources should be focused on preventing those who would do our nation harm from entering our country.
- Accountability for businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers: Employers who deliberately hire and exploit undocumented workers must be held accountable. At the same time, we must give employers who want to play by the rules a reliable way to verify that their employees are here legally.
- Strengthening our economic competitiveness by creating a legal immigration system that reflects our values and diverse needs: Our immigration laws should continue to reunify families and encourage individuals we train in our world-class institutions to stay and develop new technologies and industries in the United States rather than abroad. The law should stop punishing innocent young people whose parents brought them here illegally and give those young men and women a chance to stay in this country if they serve in the military or pursue higher education. A smart 21st century system should also provide farmers a legal way to hire the workers they rely on year after year, and it should improve procedures for employers who seek to hire foreign workers for jobs if U.S. workers are not available.
- Responsibility from people who are living in the United States illegally: Those people living here illegally must also be held accountable for their actions and get on the right side of the law by registering and undergoing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty, and learning English before they can get in line to become eligible for citizenship. Being a citizen of this country comes not only with rights but also with fundamental responsibilities. We can create a pathway for legal status that is fair and reflects our values.
The White House has stressed the theme of "elevating the debate" on immigration in this push, Republicans are unlikely to rise up to that challenge. For example: "'The president can pander all he wants to, make as many speeches as he wants to,' said Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the main committee in the U.S. House of Representatives that would consider immigration legislation," suggesting that Obama's proposal is unlikely to get a hearing in his committee.