I think we can all agree that in the past couple of weeks President Obama has demonstrated he has the guts to make tough decisions.  He is a Commander-in-Chief worthy of the title; one who is willing to put the country first, regardless of risk to his own political future.

Fixing our broken immigration system will require guts too.  And if President Obama means what he says, he must begin marshaling the bipartisan support necessary in Congress to make immigration reform a reality. There may never be a better time. Both parties recognize that the 2012 elections could pivot on the Hispanic vote.

So President Obama’s speech in El Paso earlier this week was a nice start.  He was correct to point out that if America is going to meet the challenges of the 21st Century we will need an immigration policy that can make that happen.  “In a global marketplace” so the President said, “we need all the talent we can attract, all the talent we can get to stay here to start businesses — not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contribution will benefit all Americans.”  It makes no sense, as the President aptly pointed out, to train and then turn away the best and the brightest from our shores. Nor should we turn our back on those in need.  America’s proud past was built on the grit and determination of its immigrants. So too will its future.

But while speeches are nice, action is what counts.

As the President spoke under the hot El Paso sun, bureaucrats in the Department of Homeland Security across the country continued to “just say no” to the very immigrants the President so passionately spoke of—would be immigrants who dream of coming here to enrich our nation in business, academics, the arts, and through plain hard work and determination.  If America is going to compete in a global economy, like the President says it must, so too must the Administration take real action to prevent researchers, entrepreneurs, innovators and academics from being stymied by bureaucrats whose personal, anti-immigrant bias continues to infect adjudications, and rob America of essential talent.

As I listened to the President speak I wondered how many families across the country were, at the same time, being ripped apart by ICE field agents who continue to ignore a stream of agency memoranda calling on them to target dangerous criminals and drug dealers rather than mothers, fathers, children, and students.  Translating the President’s words into action means a policy of rigorous, yet smart and fair, enforcement of immigration law.  As the President spoke, I also thought about Homeland Security’s ill advised “Secure Communities” program which nets all too many harmless immigrants in the tangled web of immigration dysfunction and continues to metastasize across the country as it is implemented in community after community.  Finally, as I heard President Obama’s words I wondered how many more promising high school graduates will continue to be denied a chance to dream and relegated to immigration limbo – not accepted in the country they have struggled against all odds to enrich – and forced to fear being handcuffed and jailed by the Department of Homeland Security for boarding a bus, a train or a plane without proper papers.

President Obama certainly didn’t create the current immigration mess.  And it is clear that getting Congress to roll up its sleeves and fashion a comprehensive overhaul of the badly dysfunctional immigration system is a daunting task.  But in the meantime he has the power to use the law as it is written to bring in much needed foreign talent in shortage occupations while protecting the wages of US workers, keep families together, and offer undocumented students a chance to continue to give back to our nation,  Thankfully this week Senator Durbin and Representatives Berman and Ros-Lehtinen used their power as legislators to reintroduce the DREAM Act which will offer a pathway to lawful compliance to thousands of undocumented students.  But, until Congress acts in a meaningful way to fix the immigration system the Administration should, at a minimum, require that the Department of Homeland Security do the following:

  • Adjudicate business visa applications with an eye on building our economy and creating American jobs rather restricting access to the very immigrants that will help America on its road to economic recovery and global competitiveness in the 21st Century;
  • Implement smart enforcement of the immigration law by focusing on dangerous criminals, rather than immigrants who have never been convicted of a serious crime or any crime who then get caught in the tangled web of a dysfunctional immigration system;
  • Take a “time out” on the Secure Communities Program, at least until serious questions about the program can be addressed and problems fixed; and
  • Ensure that the due process rights of all immigrants are protected.

President Obama should be applauded for his speech this week.  Now it’s time for action.