Obama Makes Immigration Speech in El Paso

By Chad Burchard | May 16, 2010

President Obama in El Paso. Photo: The White House

Last Tuesday, May 10, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on immigration at the Chamizel National Memorial in El Paso, Texas. More speeches about the need for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws are expected to follow in the weeks and months ahead, as Obama’s re-election campaign heats up.

The president spent most of the first few minutes of his speech celebrating America’s reputation for openness. “We define ourselves as nation of immigrants,” he said, “a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s ideals and America’s precepts.” He saluted past waves of immigrants who “braved hardship and great risk to come here—so they could be free to work and worship and start a business and live their lives in peace and prosperity.”

Later turning to the thornier subject of border security, the president observed that questions about the border have helped to unravel past efforts at changing the nation’s immigration system. Indeed, he called such concerns “one of the greatest impediments to reform” in recent years, and remarked that “borders first” has become “the common refrain even among those who were previously supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Conceding that there had been “legitimate concerns” about the border in the past, Obama insisted that his administration had answered them. Proclaiming that “we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible,” the crowd cheered as he told them that “we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history.” Upon mentioning the border fence, however, he was interrupted with loud boos from the audience. When he announced that “the fence is now basically complete,” several people responded by shouting “tear it down!”

The president further summarized all the ways in which his administration had ostensibly improved border security: more intelligence analysts, more aerial drones in the sky, a partnership with Mexico to fight border crime, and screenings for all southbound rail shipments. Obama concluded by asserting that:

“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.”

(At this point, someone in the audience cried “they’re racist!” in response.) The president continued expressing his belief that some would never be satisfied:

“[T]hey said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”

Obama offered statistics showing that more illegal drugs and weapons were being seized and more criminal aliens deported as evidence that his measures were succeeding.

The president then explained that there is “a growing coalition of leaders across America who don’t always see eye-to-eye, but [who] are coming together on this issue.” He mentioned former Republican Senator Mel Martinez, former Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, Michael Chertoff, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and many others, including Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, as among his allies in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.

Finally, Obama laid out his plan. First, secure the border, which he said his administration was doing. Second, hold employers accountable for hiring illegal immigrants. Third, allow illegal immigrants already here to stay if they pay a fine, learn English, and pass background checks. Fourth, reform the immigration system to make it easier for people to immigrate legally.

Obama then encouraged Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would overturn a federal law barring states from granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition for college. He closed with a story about a member of the audience who had been born to migrant workers yet nevertheless grew up to become an astronaut for NASA.

Many Republicans were quick to respond to the president’s speech. In a joint statement, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl criticized Obama’s assertion that the border had been secured: “[w]e hear from our constituents on a daily basis, and, while some progress has been made in some areas, they do not believe the border is secure.” The statement pointed to a recent GAO report which concluded that the Border Patrol had “operational control of only 44 percent of the southwest border.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer issued a statement declaring that “[o]ur state remains America’s gateway for illegal immigration, and we continue to bear the brunt of the federal government’s failure on this issue. If the President felt confident in declaring the border secure, he should have come to tell the people of Arizona face-to-face.” The statement also denounced the president’s immigration plan as “simply an amnesty by another name.”

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), a long-time advocate of stricter immigration controls, answered Obama’s speech with an op-ed for FoxNews.com, where he responded to the president’s charge that only a handful of Republican naysayers had blocked comprehensive immigration reform. “[W]hat he didn’t say,” Smith wrote, “was that during the past two years Democrats held strong majorities in both Houses of Congress. Amnesty had bipartisan opposition, and was opposed by the American people.” [Obama’s Immigration Speech Not in Touch with Reality, Rep. Lamar Smith, FoxNews.com, May 13, 2011]

Indeed, the most interesting response to Obama’s speech came not from the politicians but from the people themselves. As FoxNews.com recently reported, border residents in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico have begun circulating a petition protesting what they considered to be the speech’s mocking tone. The petition states:

“It is with great wonderment and sadness that we listened to your May 10 speech on immigration issues. All of the joking about moats and alligators cut residents of Portal, AZ, to the core as we sheltered with friends or at a Red Cross evacuation site, to survive a terrible fire that still threatens our lives and property, as well as our ecotourism-based economy.”

Jeff Gee, one of the petition’s organizers, expressed his frustrations about the border to FoxNews.com. “I’m really disappointed at current border security, I’m really disappointed at the president’s speech saying that people like me want moats with alligators, but moats with alligators might work … I don’t know if this letter will help, but nothing else is.” [Border Community Organizing Petition to Protest Obama’s Immigration Speech, Jana Winter, FoxNews.com, May 13, 2011]

The petition asks the president: “What must we say or do to garner your attention and help? How is it that, on the same day we took Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, we could not prevent illegals – 50 miles within our borders (!) – from setting a fire along a known smuggling route in an extremely dry year?” After a long period of relative quiet on the subject, a clash over immigration once more appears to be looming. If the past is any guide, the reactions to the president’s speech are likely only a taste of what is to come.