President Obama on Fixing the Broken Immigration System: "Getting Past the Two Poles of This Debate"

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Few issues have stirred more passions than immigration in this country, and this morning the President made clear what many already know: all sides must come together to address it, including those Republicans who have backed away from the table since the failed effort a few short years ago.  In his speech at American University, the President again emphasized, comprehensive reform is the only solution to our broken immigration system – and that rests on accountability:

Now, once we get past the two poles of this debate, it becomes possible to shape a practical, common-sense approach that reflects our heritage and our values.  Such an approach demands accountability from everybody – from government, from businesses and from individuals.

For government:

Government has a threshold responsibility to secure our borders.  That’s why I directed my Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano -- a former border governor -- to improve our enforcement policy without having to wait for a new law.

Today, we have more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history.  Let me repeat that:  We have more boots on the ground on the Southwest border than at any time in our history.  We doubled the personnel assigned to Border Enforcement Security Task Forces.  We tripled the number of intelligence analysts along the border.  For the first time, we’ve begun screening 100 percent of southbound rail shipments.  And as a result, we’re seizing more illegal guns, cash and drugs than in years past.  Contrary to some of the reports that you see, crime along the border is down.  And statistics collected by Customs and Border Protection reflect a significant reduction in the number of people trying to cross the border illegally.

For businesses:

That’s why businesses must be held accountable if they break the law by deliberately hiring and exploiting undocumented workers.  We’ve already begun to step up enforcement against the worst workplace offenders.  And we’re implementing and improving a system to give employers a reliable way to verify that their employees are here legally.  But we need to do more.  We cannot continue just to look the other way as a significant portion of our economy operates outside the law.  It breeds abuse and bad practices.  It punishes employers who act responsibly and undercuts American workers.  And ultimately, if the demand for undocumented workers falls, the incentive for people to come here illegally will decline as well.  

For individuals:

Finally, we have to demand responsibility from people living here illegally.  They must be required to admit that they broke the law.  They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English.  They must get right with the law before they can get in line and earn their citizenship -- not just because it is fair, not just because it will make clear to those who might wish to come to America they must do so inside the bounds of the law, but because this is how we demonstrate that being -- what being an American means.  Being a citizen of this country comes not only with rights but also with certain fundamental responsibilities.  We can create a pathway for legal status that is fair, reflective of our values, and works.

The President closed with the story of a poet more than a hundred years ago, and what she said about the character of America:

It was at this time that a young woman named Emma Lazarus, whose own family fled persecution from Europe generations earlier, took up the cause of these new immigrants.  Although she was a poet, she spent much of her time advocating for better health care and housing for the newcomers.  And inspired by what she saw and heard, she wrote down her thoughts and donated a piece of work to help pay for the construction of a new statue -- the Statue of Liberty -- which actually was funded in part by small donations from people across America.

Years before the statue was built -- years before it would be seen by throngs of immigrants craning their necks skyward at the end of long and brutal voyage, years before it would come to symbolize everything that we cherish -- she imagined what it could mean.  She imagined the sight of a giant statue at the entry point of a great nation -– but unlike the great monuments of the past, this would not signal an empire.  Instead, it would signal one’s arrival to a place of opportunity and refuge and freedom.

“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand,” she wrote,

A mighty woman with a torch…
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome…
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”…
“Give me your tired, and your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free…
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Let us remember these words.  For it falls on each generation to ensure that that lamp -– that beacon -– continues to shine as a source of hope around the world, and a source of our prosperity here at home.

Related Topics: Immigration
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