Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixing immigration: President Obama's speech at American University

President Obama is getting no respite from contentious issues. Today, speaking at American University’s School of International Service, he tackled immigration reform, held hostage for decades, he said, by political posturing. “We will not just kick the can down the road,” he promised his audience of faculty, students, and select legislators, police chiefs, mayors, and evangelical religious leaders. Despite the fact that the topic of immigration reform arouses emotions and "lends itself to demagoguery," he said, "I believe we can put politics aside and finally have an immigration system that's accountable."

I hope he is right. I have friends who are undocumented immigrants, despite more than 20 years of trying desperately to become legal residents. At last count they had spent over $30,000 on lawyers. They have appeared before panels of judges who manifested complete ignorance of their home country and the reason they need political asylum before turning down their petitions. Their amnesty applications were improperly handled by bureaucrats, who then said the deadline had passed and nothing could be done. They have been ordered to take time off work, only to wait for hours in immigration offices while the office staff rudely ignored them.

I'm not telling you their name or their country of origin, because I suspect they have simply given up and are now flying beneath the radar. There are networks of fellow refugees who will help them, but this is not the way they want to live. They are law-abiding people who work and pay taxes. They have raised their children in America (in fact, one child was born here so is a U.S. citizen) and now have American grandchildren. In fact, many in their extended family are Americans. And yet, due to a series of departmental snafus, they continue to wait for permission to stay in their adopted country. Apparently it would take an Act of Congress to legally admit this fine family to the United States - and indeed, two Senate bills have been introduced in their favor. Both bills died in committee.

As I watched President Obama's speech, I was thinking about my friends. They are part of the "steady stream of hard-working and talented people" that have allowed our country to thrive. If the president is right that "being American is not a matter of blood and birth, but of faith," then my friends are more American than I am. They still hold on to the hope that someday the system will be fixed and they will be fully welcome in the land they love. I hope so too, but unless something drastically changes the political climate, my faith is weak.

As the president pointed out, people are afraid of immigrants - especially during economic downturns. This was true in 1798, just 11 years after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, when the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. It was true in the 19th century when waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Poland swarmed our shores. It was true at the turn of the 20th century when Jewish immigrants fled persecutors in Eastern Europe, and from 1882 to 1943 when Chinese immigrants were routinely detained and deported. It is certainly true now.

As the president also pointed out, "without bipartisan support, we cannot solve this problem. Reform cannot pass without Republican votes."

Bipartisan action is possible. Some Republicans, "including my predecessor, President Bush," Mr. Obama said, "have shown courageous leadership." For example, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and the late Ted Kennedy (D-MA) worked together on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, though it failed to get through Congress. Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have collaborated on a proposal to mend our "badly broken" immigration system that sounds a great deal like President Obama's suggestions in this morning's speech. And yet, as the president said, "the natural impulse among those who run for office is to turn away and defer decisions for another day, another year, another administration."

Perhaps that is why the White House invited evangelical leaders to join the audience this morning, and why megachurch pastor Bill Hybels was asked to introduce the president. Evangelicals, though far from a solid bloc, tend to vote Republican. However, as Hybels pointed out, many evangelicals know that "a recurring theme in Scripture is a mandate from God to care for widows, strangers, and orphans." Believing that religious salvation depends on faith, not on blood or birth, they may be receptive to the president's suggestion that faith (presumably in American ideals) is also the basis of citizenship. If Hybels is correct, "today an earnest bipartisan conversation begins that those of us in the faith community have been praying about for years."

I hope that good people of both parties will unite to fix our immigration system. I hope that we can find a just approach that is both hospitable and responsible. I hope that businesses who exploit undocumented immigrants will be forced to straighten up or shut down, and that people who wish to move here and work hard will be given the means to do so legally. I hope that my friends will someday be able to say the Pledge of Allegiance along with other new American citizens.

As the president said, "Fixing our broken immigration system is a moral imperative."

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