President Obama's speech this morning on comprehensive immigration reform was a good start to getting the ball rolling with this effort. (The transcript is here.) But that's all it was. And like a lot of Obama speeches, it was strong on philosophical substance -- though typically, it equivocated in trying to split the middle between the "poles" of the debate -- and pretty short on practical details for getting it done. He didn't even forecast a deadline for legislation.
The heart of the speech was this part:
Our task then is to make our national laws actually work -– to shape a system that reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. And that means being honest about the problem, and getting past the false debates that divide the country rather than bring it together.
For example, there are those in the immigrants’ rights community who have argued passionately that we should simply provide those who are [here] illegally with legal status, or at least ignore the laws on the books and put an end to deportation until we have better laws. And often this argument is framed in moral terms: Why should we punish people who are just trying to earn a living?
I recognize the sense of compassion that drives this argument, but I believe such an indiscriminate approach would be both unwise and unfair. It would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision. And this could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration. And it would also ignore the millions of people around the world who are waiting in line to come here legally.
Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship. And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable.
Now, if the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation -– because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric. Many have children who are American citizens. Some are children themselves, brought here by their parents at a very young age, growing up as American kids, only to discover their illegal status when they apply for college or a job. Migrant workers -– mostly here illegally -– have been the labor force of our farmers and agricultural producers for generations. So even if it was possible, a program of mass deportations would disrupt our economy and communities in ways that most Americans would find intolerable.
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.
Then, as you can see in the video above, Obama lays out his strategy for getting this done: Republicans have to come on board. Well, in the year of the Tea Parties, we wish him lots of luck on that. This is just a recipe for endless compromises in legislation the name of bringing aboard a Republican who in the end turns around and screws them when the time to vote arrives. We saw this in the health-care debate, in financial reform, and a dozen other legislative initiatives. It doesn't work with these guys.
Frank Sharry of America's Voice has some thoughts about all this:
Be sure and read Sharry's more detailed thoughts at HuffPo. He's one of our best thinkers on immigration, and the president would do well to hew more closely to Sharry's advice on this than Rahm's, ifyaknowaddimean.