President Obama spoke to residents in El Paso, Texas on Tuesday about immigration reform. The president said that his administration had made efforts to answer the calls of Republicans to secure the border, but also argued that breaking up families and punishing children for their parents' illegal immigration was not the way forward. "Everybody knows the system is broken," President Obama told the crowd, "The question is, will we summon the political will to do something about it?" Here are the five things we learned from the president's speech.
1. Obama is feeling pressure from the business lobby.
After appealing to nostalgia for America's legacy as a nation of immigrants, President Obama then appealed to America's competitive spirit. He called immigration reform an "economic imperative" twice in his speech and couched his economic remarks with references to high gas prices and competition with China and India.
"It's for this reason that businesses all across America are demanding that Washington finally meet its responsibility to solve the immigration problem," he said.
Obama spent a chunk of time talking about tech giants Google, Yahoo, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, and it was clear that increasing the number of H-1B visas available for high skilled immigrants and allowing international students to stay in the U.S. after graduation are priorities. On the other hand, the president didn't mention America's need for low-skilled immigrants with the exception of a one-liner about providing workers to America's farmers and his general concerns about worker exploitation.
2. The president thinks he deserves credit on his border security record (and is exasperated by Republicans who won't support reform now).
The anti-reform mantra has always been "no reform until the border is secure," so President Obama listed off his administration's accomplishments on the border: More agents, a fence, drones, partnerships with Mexico to fight crime and then ended with a sarcastic remark:
"Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat."
President Obama complained about Republicans numerous times in the speech. He made a veiled criticism to Senator Lindsay Graham for walking away from negotiations, and to John McCain to for not supporting the DREAM Act this past fall as he had in the past.
3. Obama will not use his executive powers to further his views on immigration.
In recent weeks, immigration advocates have put pressure on the President to use his executive powers to stop deportations of people who have not been convicted of a crime. Twenty two senators sent Obama a letter in April asking him to grant relief from deportation to all students who would benefit from the DREAM Act. Not going to happen. "Sometimes when I talk to immigration advocates they wish that I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that’s not how a democracy works," he said. That will not cheer advocates who have accused the President of double-talk in his words and policies.
4. If we see any vote on immigration before the next term, it will likely be on the DREAM Act.
The President's words about the DREAM Act in El Paso garnered the most applause, more than border security. He didn't say anything he hadn't said before, but with all the "American Dream" imagery, the President made it clear that the bill that would allow young undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status is fundamental to his immigration agenda. Though he did not speak to Hispanics directly, he chose to tell the story of a Hispanic man, José Hernández, the son of migrant workers who became an astronaut on the Shuttle Discovery. Republican critics accused the President of giving a speech just to win the support of Latino voters, the nation's fastest growing immigrant group--that criticism will continue.
5. Every speech from the president from now on will sound like a campaign stop. Obama called on the public to write letters, make calls, and "get this done," i.e. get on his bandwagon. By describing immigration reform as a way to fix the American economy, Obama made a clear distinction between Republicans who he accused of playing political games while people's lives are in the balance, and his Presidency. "I'm going to need your help," he said.