Obama’s Immigration Proposal

by Daniel Foster

President Obama just gave about a 25 minute speech in Las Vegas outlining (in terms even more broad than the Senate’s gang of eight yesterday) his principles for comprehensive (but of course) immigration reform. Here are the highlights from the president’s speech and the written proposal released by the White House:

  • Broad talk about boosting border security by “enhancing our infrastructure and technology” and giving law enforcement “the tools they need to make our communities safer from crime.” Includes boosted security at ports of entry and crossings, “public-private partnerships” for visitor processing (potentially intriguing), increased penalties for a variety of immigration-related crimes like passport fraud and human trafficking, an expansion of the immigration court system, and a “streamlined” process for removing immigration offenders deemed (by whom?) to be security threats.
  • E-Verify with boosted penalties for the hiring of illegals and sundry other goodies like high-tech, tamper-resistant Social Security cards. Ominously, it also includes the creation of a “labor law enforcement fund” to “help ensure that industries that employ significant numbers of immigrant workers comply with labor laws.”
  • “Earned citizneship,” and here I’ll quote at length: “Create a provisional legal status. Undocumented immigrants must come forward and register, submit biometric data, pass criminal-background and national-security checks, and pay fees and penalties before they will be eligible for a provisional legal status. Agricultural workers and those who entered the United States as children would be eligible for the same program. Individuals must wait until the existing legal immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line to apply for lawful permanent residency (i.e., a “green card”), and ultimately United States citizenship. Consistent with current law, people with provisional legal status will not be eligible for welfare or other federal benefits, including subsidies or tax credits under the new health-care law.” After getting a green card, these provisionally legal immigrants would have to pass additional checks and hurdles before applying for citizenship. The process will be expedited for “DREAMers” who attend college or serve in the armed forces.
  • More legal immigration. First, by expanding preferences for family members of existing legal immigrants (including those in a “permanent relationship with a same-sex partner.”) Second, by expanding visas and eliminating existing per-country caps on employer-sponsored visas. Third, by automatically issuing green cards to immigrants who secure advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at U.S. universities. (Employers of these graduates would have to pay a fee that would ostensibly go to job training for American-born nerds). Fourth, by creating new categories of visas for investors and entrepreneurs. Also includes vague plans to “encourage integration.”

Most of the details here were left unpacked in the speech. It’s worth noting that there was basically dead silence in the Vegas crowd when it came to enforcement and employment verification. It’s also worth noting that he left out some of the most controversial bits, like the small matter of the the blanket recognition of same-sex unions by the federal government. The plan is also mum on an “enforcement trigger” sought by congressional Republicans, which would tie the substantive reform to measurable border-security improvements.

Politically, this was a campaign-style speech to a very friendly crowd, complete with weird, constitutionally empty threats to the very legislators who beat the president to the punch by 24 hours (“If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill. . . and insist that they vote on it right away” — presumably SEAL Team Six will be involved). Rhetorically, Obama made a few subtle but key shifts from past principles, most noticeably away from “a path to legal status” for illegals to “a path toward citizenship” — “earned citizenship,” to be precise, which appears to be the administration’s favored alternative to the loaded “amnesty.”

This is the kind of speech and the kind of proposal designed to make clear to Congress that the president is going “all rights reserved.” It leaves him free to either use the most controversial elements as bargaining chips or blow up bipartisan talks by “insisting” on planks leftward of the bipartisan consensus.

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