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The President Speaks on Fixing America’s Broken Immigration System


The President: My fellow
Americans, tonight, I’d like to talk with
you about immigration. For more than 200 years,
our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around
the world has given us a tremendous advantage
over other nations. It’s kept us youthful,
dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character
as a people with limitless possibilities — people
not trapped by our past, but able to remake
ourselves as we choose. But today, our immigration
system is broken — and everybody knows it. Families who enter our
country the right way and play by the rules watch
others flout the rules. Business owners who offer
their workers good wages and benefits see the
competition exploit undocumented immigrants
by paying them far less. All of us take offense
to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in
America without taking on the responsibilities
of living in America. And undocumented
immigrants who desperately want to embrace those
responsibilities see little option but to
remain in the shadows, or risk their families
being torn apart. It’s been this
way for decades. And for decades, we
haven’t done much about it. When I took office, I
committed to fixing this broken
immigration system. And I began by doing what I
could to secure our borders. Today, we have more agents
and technology deployed to secure our southern
border than at any time in our history. And over the past six years,
illegal border crossings have been cut by
more than half. Although this summer,
there was a brief spike in unaccompanied children
being apprehended at our border, the number of such
children is now actually lower than it’s been
in nearly two years. Overall, the number of people
trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest
level since the 1970s. Those are the facts. Meanwhile, I worked with
Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68
Democrats, Republicans, and independents
came together to pass a bipartisan bill
in the Senate. It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise. But it reflected
common sense. It would have
doubled the number of border patrol
agents while giving undocumented immigrants a
pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine,
started paying their taxes, and went to the
back of the line. And independent experts
said that it would help grow our economy and
shrink our deficits. Had the House of
Representatives allowed that kind of bill a simple
yes-or-no vote, it would have passed with support
from both parties, and today it would
be the law. But for a year and a half
now, Republican leaders in the House have refused
to allow that simple vote. Now, I continue to believe
that the best way to solve this problem is by working
together to pass that kind of common sense law. But until that happens,
there are actions I have the legal authority to
take as President — the same kinds of actions
taken by Democratic and Republican
presidents before me — that will help make our
immigration system more fair and
more just. Tonight, I am announcing
those actions. First, we’ll build on our
progress at the border with additional resources for our
law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the
flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of
those who do cross over. Second, I’ll make it easier
and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates,
and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our
economy, as so many business leaders
have proposed. Third, we’ll take steps to
deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented
immigrants who already live in our country. I want to say more
about this third issue, because it generates the most
passion and controversy. Even as we are a
nation of immigrants, we’re also a
nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke
our immigration laws, and I believe that they
must be held accountable — especially those who
may be dangerous. That’s why, over
the past six years, deportations of criminals
are up 80 percent. And that’s why we’re
going to keep focusing enforcement resources
on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s
working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just
like law enforcement does every day. But even as we focus on
deporting criminals, the fact is, millions of
immigrants in every state, of every race and nationality
still live here illegally. And let’s be honest —
tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of
people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests
otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who
we are as Americans. After all, most of these
immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in
tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are
American-born or spent most of their lives here, and
their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are
just like ours. As my predecessor,
President Bush, once put it: “They are a
part of American life.” Now here’s the thing: We
expect people who live in this country to
play by the rules. We expect that those who
cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. So we’re going to offer the
following deal: If you’ve been in America for
more than five years; if you have children who
are American citizens or legal residents; if
you register, pass a criminal background
check, and you’re willing to pay your fair
share of taxes — you’ll be able to
apply to stay in this country temporarily without
fear of deportation. You can come out of the
shadows and get right with the law. That’s what this deal is. Now, let’s be clear
about what it isn’t. This deal does not apply to
anyone who has come to this country recently. It does not apply to
anyone who might come to America illegally
in the future. It does not grant
citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently,
or offer the same benefits that citizens
receive — only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re
not going to deport you. I know some of the
critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration
system we have today — millions of people who
live here without paying their taxes or playing
by the rules while politicians use the
issue to scare people and whip up votes
at election time. That’s the real
amnesty — leaving this broken system
the way it is. Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would
be both impossible and contrary to
our character. What I’m describing is
accountability — a common-sense,
middle-ground approach: If you meet the criteria,
you can come out of the shadows and get
right with the law. If you’re a criminal,
you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter
the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting
caught and sent back just went up. The actions I’m taking
are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions
taken by every single Republican President and every
single Democratic President for the past half century. And to those members of Congress
who question my authority to make our immigration
system work better, or question the wisdom of
me acting where Congress has failed, I have one
answer: Pass a bill. I want to work with both
parties to pass a more permanent
legislative solution. And the day I sign
that bill into law, the actions I take will
no longer be necessary. Meanwhile, don’t let
a disagreement over a single issue be a
dealbreaker on every issue. That’s not how our
democracy works, and Congress certainly
shouldn’t shut down our government again just
because we disagree on this. Americans are
tired of gridlock. What our country needs
from us right now is a common purpose —
a higher purpose. Most Americans support
the types of reforms I’ve talked about tonight. But I understand the
disagreements held by many of you at home. Millions of us, myself
included, go back generations in this country, with ancestors
who put in the painstaking work to become citizens. So we don’t like the
notion that anyone might get a free pass to
American citizenship. I know some worry immigration
will change the very fabric of who we are, or take our jobs,
or stick it to middle-class families at a time when
they already feel like they’ve gotten the raw
deal for over a decade. I hear these concerns. But that’s not what
these steps would do. Our history and the facts
show that immigrants are a net plus for our
economy and our society. And I believe it’s important
that all of us have this debate without impugning
each other’s character. Because for all the back
and forth of Washington, we have to remember
that this debate is about
something bigger. It’s about who we
are as a country, and who we want to be
for future generations. Are we a nation that tolerates
the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our
fruit and make our beds never have a chance to
get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives
them a chance to make amends, take responsibility,
and give their kids a better future? Are we a nation that
accepts the cruelty of ripping children from
their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation
that values families, and works together to
keep them together? Are we a nation that
educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create
businesses in countries that compete against us? Or are we a nation that
encourages them to stay and create jobs here,
create businesses here, create industries
right here in America? That’s what this
debate is all about. We need more than
politics as usual when it comes to immigration. We need reasoned, thoughtful,
compassionate debate that focuses on our
hopes, not our fears. I know the politics of
this issue are tough. But let me tell you why
I have come to feel so strongly about it. Over the past few years, I
have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who
worked two or three jobs without taking a dime from the government, and
at risk any moment of losing it all, just to build a
better life for their kids. I’ve seen the heartbreak and
anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken
away from them just because they didn’t
have the right papers. I’ve seen the courage
of students who, except for the circumstances
of their birth, are as American as Malia
or Sasha; students who bravely come out
as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference
in the country they love. These people — our
neighbors, our classmates, our friends — they
did not come here in search of a free
ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study,
and serve in our military, and above all, contribute
to America’s success. Tomorrow, I’ll travel to Las
Vegas and meet with some of these students,
including a young woman named Astrid Silva. Astrid was brought to America
when she was four years old. Her only possessions
were a cross, her doll, and the frilly
dress she had on. When she started school, she
didn’t speak any English. She caught up to other kids
by reading newspapers and watching PBS, and she
became a good student. Her father worked
in landscaping. Her mom cleaned
other people’s homes. They wouldn’t let Astrid
apply to a technology magnet school, not because
they didn’t love her, but because they were afraid
the paperwork would out her as an undocumented immigrant
— so she applied behind their back and got in. Still, she mostly lived in
the shadows — until her grandmother, who visited every
year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel
to the funeral without risk of being found
out and deported. It was around that time she
decided to begin advocating for herself and others
like her, and today, Astrid Silva is a
college student working on her third degree. Are we a nation that
kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant
like Astrid, or are we a nation that finds a
way to welcome her in? Scripture tells us that we
shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart
of a stranger — we were strangers
once, too. My fellow Americans,
we are and always will be a nation
of immigrants. We were strangers
once, too. And whether our forebears
were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the
Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this
country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an
American is about something more than what we look like,
or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is
our shared commitment to an ideal — that all
of us are created equal, and all of us have the
chance to make of our lives what we will. That’s the country our
parents and grandparents and generations before
them built for us. That’s the tradition
we must uphold. That’s the legacy we
must leave for those who are yet to come. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless this
country we love.

Bernard Jenkins

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