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In First Address on Immigration, Obama Urges Middle Ground Between Blanket Amnesty and Mass Deportations

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President Obama delivered his first major speech on immigration Thursday, making an impassioned plea for passing comprehensive immigration reform. We play excerpts of his address and speak to two guests: Columbia University professor Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, and Gaby Pacheco, a twenty-five-year-old student who, along with three other students, completed a four-month walk from Miami to Washington, DC, earlier this year, talking to people about their experience of growing up undocumented and urging the President to stop deportations. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama delivered his first major speech on immigration Thursday, making an impassioned plea for passing comprehensive immigration reform. He criticized laws in Arizona like SB 1070 as divisive, controversial and ill-conceived, and noted the long history of both immigrant contributions to this country as well as anti-immigrant demagoguery and discrimination. Obama emphasized that, quote, “Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth.”

Speaking at the American University School of International Service in Washington, the President outlined the scope of the debate.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The politics of who is and who is not allowed to enter this country, and on what terms, has always been contentious. And that remains true today. And it’s made worse by a failure of those of us in Washington to fix a broken immigration system.

    There are those in the immigrants’ rights community who have argued, passionately, that we should simply provide those who are 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.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama went on to lay out what he described as a practical, commonsense approach to immigration, noting the problems with border enforcement and outlining the responsibilities of the undocumented.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our borders will not be secure as long as our limited resources are devoted to not only stopping gangs and potential terrorists, but also the hundreds of thousands who attempt to cross each year simply to find work. That’s why businesses must be held accountable if they break the law by deliberately hiring and exploiting undocumented workers. Ultimately, if the demand for undocumented workers falls, the incentive for people to come here illegally will decline, as well. Finally, we have to demand responsibility from people living here illegally. They must be required to admit that they broke the law. They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English.

AMY GOODMAN: Calling immigration reform a moral imperative, Obama said the responsibility for moving forward lies with Republicans.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m ready to move forward. The majority of Democrats are ready to move forward. And I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward. But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the highlights of President Obama’s first major address on immigration made yesterday in Washington.

For more, I’m joined here by two guests. In New York, Mae Ngai is with us, professor of history and Asian American studies at Columbia University, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. And on the line from Miami, we’re joined by Gaby Pacheco, a twenty-five-year-old student who came to this country from Ecuador when she was seven. Earlier this year, she, along with three other students, took a four-month-long walk from Miami to Washington, DC, talking to people about their experience of growing up undocumented and urging the President to stop deportations. They called their walk the “Trail of Dreams.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Ngai, your response to President Obama’s address?

MAE NGAI: Well, the President had many positive things to say, I think. He acknowledged the history of immigrants in contributing to the country, and he struck a note that said that enforcement alone is not enough, and he criticized the Arizona law. I think those were all positive things.

I think the big elephant in the room that the President hasn’t addressed and that nobody is really talking about in this debate is why do we have illegal immigration. The President suggests that illegals come here because they are lawbreakers, and they chose to come illegally rather than get on line. But what Americans don’t understand is that line is a twenty-year line, if you’re coming from Mexico. We have a system. What’s broken about it is that we have a very limited number of visas that we give to each country.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think President Obama gave this address?

MAE NGAI: I think he does believe in immigration reform. I think he has a — he does have compassionate approach to the matter, but he’s also a politician. And I think the number one reason why he gave this address and why he’s promoting reform is because the Latino electorate is now very important in American politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriela Pacheco, your response to President Obama’s first major address on immigration?

GABRIELA PACHECO: I think that this was the first time that we hear a major speech from the President, but it’s not the first time that we hear him talking about immigration. And as a matter of fact, I think that a lot of the people were waiting to hear more concrete examples of how we were going to move the issue forward. I think that he did a really good job in laying out the history and the anti-immigrant movement that we are currently facing and hearing here in the country. But at the same time, I think that for a lot of us who have been working on this issue for many, many years, we felt that it left us empty-handed, and it also left us just with more just confusion and no direction on how we’re going to really target this issue that is affecting millions of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriela Pacheco, you clearly feel very strongly about this issue. You marched 1,500 miles, you and three other students, three of you undocumented. You’re risking a lot in doing that. Why did you do that “Trail of Tears” — “Trail of Dreams”?

GABRIELA PACHECO: Yes. So, we risked it all, because we felt that we weren’t living our lives at all. We felt that we were incarcerated and in jail in the land of free. We did it because — you know, myself, I have a bachelor’s degree, and I have two other degrees, and even though I’ve been able to show and portray to this country and the world that I deserve an opportunity to live my life, because of the current laws and the system and how it is, I can’t. And so, you know, it was better to stand up for myself and to fight than to see myself going by the wayside.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the four students met with President Obama on Monday. What happened in that meeting — one of you?

GABRIELA PACHECO: Right. Since we started walking, our request was for President Obama to have an audience with us. We wanted to tell him what was really happening on the ground. We have seen there’s a huge disconnect between the administration and what is really happening in these communities. And as a result, we have SB 1070, 287(g) agreements, more Secure Communities. And Juan Rodríguez was invited to participate in this meeting. And at this meeting, I think that the President had the opportunity to hear from all the advocates’ mouth the disparity and the anger the Latino and the immigrant community currently have to the administration. And I think it doesn’t have to do with the President itself, but the promises he made and the hope that he brought to our community, which we have not yet seen.

AMY GOODMAN: You met — Gaby, you met Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, the famous sheriff who is known for his, to say the least, extremely harsh measures when it comes to dealing with prisoners?

GABRIELA PACHECO: That’s correct. We went to Arizona, because when we were walking, we heard the news of SB 1070 signed into law by Jan Brewer, and we felt as if this was a national disaster that was happening in the country. And as such, we needed to go down there and see whatever it was that we could do. And one of the things, talking to the community there, we saw that Phoenix people and the immigrants there fear, with — you know, with all of their fiber of their being, Joe Arpaio. And what we tried to do is to show the community that there was nothing to fear, that he was just a regular man like themselves. And we went in there to talk to him and to tell him to stop hurting our families and that we no longer were afraid of him. And so, we showed up to his office wearing pink polo shirts to kind of show the community, the same way he says he calms his inmates making them wear pink underwear. We wore pink shirts to show him that we didn’t even fear that color, and we didn’t fear being detained and arrested by him. And at the same time, we went in there to be, as a nonviolent movement that the walk was, to continue to spread what we feel is going to change this country, which is breaking into the hearts and minds of the average American, which has been, for many years, inconstrued because of the media and what is said about us, and we went in there to tell him our stories personally from our mouth and say, “Your stories is no different than the story of your family and how they came to this country.”

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ngai, what, to you, would be comprehensive immigration reform?

MAE NGAI: As I said before, the main problem in our immigration system, what’s broken about it, is not just administrative backlogs. It’s not just that employers get away with hiring people in flouting labor laws. The problem with the immigration system is that we have a ceiling on how many people can come, and that number is distributed to countries in an equal way. Every country has the same maximum number of green cards that can be given out a year. And that number is 26,500. So Mexico has the same cap as Belgium or New Zealand. So when President Obama says get on line, legally, like everybody else, it depends on what country you’re coming from. In Mexico, if you’re from Mexico, the line could be twenty years. It could even be forty years, depending on the category that you’re applying to. If you’re from New Zealand, you don’t have to get on line, or there’s an administrative way, but there’s no real line. And that’s the problem, is how we allocate the visas. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach, when in fact not all countries are the same size, not all of them have the same needs. And that would be really comprehensive reform, if we tackled that problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us, Mae Ngai, Columbia University professor — her book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

— and Gabriela Pacheco, for joining us from Miami, who walked the “Trail of Dreams,” 1,500 miles to stop deportations.

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