Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Immigration in the State of the Union

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In 2009, in his first State of the Union speech, President Obama did not even mention immigration. Last year, the president was bold in his call for action for the DREAMers.

On Tuesday night, he dedicated five paragraphs to immigration reform and called for not only comprehensive immigration reform but also for “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship.” He made his case for reform with the roar of sustained, thunderous applause echoing throughout the House chamber, with Vice President Biden on his feet and Speaker Boehner also clapping in agreement.

The president made his case for immigration reform within the context of what needs to be done to make our economy stronger.

On both sides of the aisle, it has become increasingly clear that we need immigrants for our global competitiveness. Immigrants are more likely to start small businesses than their U.S.-born counterparts and their labor often creates jobs for U.S.-born workers across the American economy. As baby boomers retire, immigrants are the ones who will buy their homes, fill the jobs they leave and provide for their health care. One-quarter of all high-tech firms were founded by immigrants.

Republicans and Democrats alike are in agreement with the need to fix our immigration system.

Here, the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators, which includes the designee for the Republican rebuttal, Senator Marco Rubio, launched their principles for immigration reform just over two weeks ago. The president shared his outline for immigration reform in Las Vegas the following day. Both these senators and the president as well as even a bipartisan group of House members are in general agreement with the president over his call during the State of the Union to fix “the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”

The more contentious part of his call for immigration reform in Las Vegas and in his State of the Union is for a path to citizenship for the undocumented “that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

The Gang of Eight outlined principles similar to that of the president but with the caveat that the door to citizenship would only open on the condition that a commission of governors, attorneys general and community leaders first verifies that the border is secure. The problem here is that the border will never be entirely secure; no border is fully secure. But we have made substantial progress. As outlined in a January 2013 report from the Migration Policy Institute, the 340,252 apprehensions in fiscal year 2011 is the lowest level since 1970.

Still, momentum is clearly gaining for immigration reform. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate recognize that with the majority of the American public supporting comprehensive immigration reform, their political future is tied to their ability to forge an agreement. Now, following the weight given to immigration reform in the State of the Union and in the Republican rebuttal, it is time to work out the more divisive details. The Senate Judiciary Committee picks up where the speeches on Tuesday left off when it holds its first hearing on comprehensive immigration reform on Wednesday.


Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

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