Obama’s immigration reform speech: first reactions

President Obama, coming off a handful of important legislative victories, hinted today in a major speech that he might try his hand at legislation on the third rail of American politics – immigration reform.

That’s good news for Jewish groups like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the American Jewish Committee, as well as a coalition of some 600 faith leaders that gathered at the White House today and delivered a letter urging strong action to pass legislation that “both protects our interests and abides by our values” before the end of the year.

Today Gideon Aronoff, the HIAS CEO, had this to day about the presidential address at American University:

“We agree with the President that the rule of law must prevail, but that enforcement alone is not the answer to fix our broken immigration system. The need for a comprehensive fix is urgent and should include a wide array of measures, most especially a path to legal rights and citizenship for those undocumented immigrants already here. It is neither feasible nor morally tolerable to rip apart families – many who include both undocumented immigrants and their citizen children – by deporting 11 million people."

Aronoff called Obama’s speech a “clarion call to action from the President to the American people to urge Congress to respect our nation’s heritage and values.”

The President touched another responsive chord among Jewish groups by calling for a fix for the broken LEGAL immigration system, as well as compassionate treatment of those who are illegally, something groups like HIAS and the American Jewish Committee have long advocated.

Okay, nice, but what about the fact this is a critical election year, with Republicans hoping to cut into and maybe end Democratic majorities in the House and Senate? What about the fact illegal immigration is a hot button issue with angry voters? What about the tea partiers?

Obama may have one new arrow in his quiver: a growing number of religious groups are becoming more active in the fight.

There’s more pressure on Catholic groups to join the fray – in part because of an aroused Hispanic community fearful of the kind of anti-immigrant fervor that produced Arizona’s controversial new law on illegal immigrants.

And there are numerous reports that many evangelical groups are getting more involved.

What remains to be seen: what will the Obama administration actually DO on the issue? Will there be a comprehensive reform proposal from the White House, or efforts to expand more limited bills currently before Congress?

And how many members of Congress will stick their necks out on an issue that has traditionally been one of the most radioactive in American politics? Some polls show widespread approval for Arizona’s illegal immigration law; especially in the House, where every member must face voters this year, that’s going to make a lot of people nervous.

Still, for HIAS, the AJC and other Jewish groups that have been pushing for comprehensive immigration reform for years, today’s speech was encouraging.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.