It was next to the last line of President Obama?s address to the nation Thursday evening on immigration reform that he said what may be the intent of his executive action.? ?That?s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come,? he said, in reference to the future generation of immigrants and to his own place in history.
This was without a doubt the most significant fifteen minute speech thus far in his second term and perhaps his entire tenure in office.? It is an executive action right up there with those left by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In several ways this action supersedes his Affordable Care Act and is a meaningful step toward sealing his legacy and throwing the ball clearly in Congress? court, which they will probably throw it right back.
After about seven or eight minutes detailing the cracks in the broken immigration system and the failure of Congress to act, he cited the three things his plan would do without indicating any numbers: ?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,? he continued, ?I will 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.?
On this third point, realizing that it was probably the most provocative aspect, Obama elaborated and stressing, as he has done from his first campaign speech that we are a nation of immigrants but 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.?
He noted that over the last several years that the deportations of criminals are up 80 percent.? And then he began a lyrical refrain of alliteration on the actual threats to the nation?s security.? ?Felons, not families.? Criminals, not children.? Gang members, not a mother who?s working hard to provide for her kids.? We?ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.?
According to Janet Murguia, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the speech was ?a huge victory for us?an important first step,? she said during an appearance on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes.? ?Now Congress can step in and finish the job.? This is a historic moment for the country.?
?A community of people who have been demonized,? said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, ?tonight he humanized them.?
That humanizing was given special resonance when the president, as he is wont to do, singled out one person to drive his point home.? Her name is Astrid Silva and he said he will be seeing her when he arrives tomorrow in Las Vegas. ??Astrid was brought to America when she was four years old,? he related. ?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 the other kids by reading newspapers and watching PBS, and became a good student. Her father worked in landscaping. Her mother cleaned other people’s homes.
?They wouldn’t let Astrid apply to a technology magnet school for fear 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?? he asked.
During the cutaways on the telecast of the speech there was a throng of celebrants outside the White House, waving the American flag, and shouting in jubilation about the president?s bold move.
?It?s like waving a red flag in front of bull,? Sen. Mitch McConnell had said earlier, signaling the push back the action is sure to receive from the Republicans.
What they will perceive as a ?divisive action,? thousands of undocumented immigrants will see as a call to come out of the shadows. The issue of amnesty was something else Obama anticipated would get a lot of attention and he gave the term his own definition. ?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,? he explained, ?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 commonsense, 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.?
Now while we wait to see how Congress deals with this curve ball, let?s see if the president?s numbers go up.