President Barack Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform in a speech in Texas Tuesday, but he continued to leave Republicans unimpressed that his administration has made enough progress on border security to contemplate legalizing millions of illegal immigrants.
Obama acknowledged that pressure for more border security has derailed efforts to pass an immigration reform bill in Congress.
"In recent years, among the greatest impediments to reform were questions about border security," Obama said. "These were legitimate concerns; it’s true that a lack of manpower and resources at the border, combined with the pull of jobs and ill-considered enforcement once folks were in the country, contributed to a growing number of undocumented people living in the United States. And these concerns helped unravel a bipartisan coalition we forged back when I was a United States Senator."
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has addressed those concerns sufficiently, however, Obama argued. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000 since 2004 while DHS has placed unprecedented resources at the US southwest border.
The President accused Republicans of continually moving the goalposts in their demands for border security, emphasizing that the border fence and other measures called for by the GOP in the past have basically come to pass.
"So, 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. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time. They’ll say we need to triple the border patrol. Or quadruple the borderpatrol. They’ll say we need a higher fence to support reform," Obama stated.
"Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat," he deadpanned.
Obama presented the case for immigration reform in El Paso, consistently rated as one of the safest cities in the United States despite its location along the US-Mexico border. The safety of El Paso was no mistake, he contended, but rather the result of increased security efforts. Overall violent crime in US border counties has dropped by a third in recent years, he said.
The President characterized the vast majority of illegal immigrants, whether they crossed the border or overstayed their visas, as people drawn to the United States due to the promise of economic opportunities. Those that turn to crime are targeted by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has increased removal of criminal aliens by 70 percent, Obama commented.
"And I’d point out, the most significant step we can take now to secure the borders is to fix the system as a whole — so that fewer people have incentive to enter illegally in search of work in the first place. This would allow agents to focus on the worst threats on both of our borders — from drug traffickers to those who would come here to commit acts of violence or terror," he stated.
Obama reiterated the requirements for immigration reform, underscoring the responsibility of the federal government to secure US borders and enforce immigration laws. Authorities must hold businesses accountable if they hire illegal immigrants, he said, and those in the country illegally must admit they broke the law, pay back taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. Furthermore, they would undergo background checks before they become eligible for consideration to become legal US residents.
Employment opportunities such as expanded guest worker programs also must be a part of immigration reform to provide formerly illegal immigrants with the job opportunities they first sought as well as to encourage those who would contemplate entering the United States illegally to apply for legal jobs, Obama stressed.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) went to bat for the President in an exclusive interview with Homeland Security Today, noting that Texans have consistently thwarted state laws that would interfere with federal responsibilities to secure US borders and enforce immigration laws.
Obama not only made the case for comprehensive immigration reform on its merits, Jackson Lee said, but the identity verification of illegal immigrants in the country is the best means to thwart terrorist attacks in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden.
"It’s long overdue to legislate this in order to make America a nation that is welcoming to immigrants and yet ferrets out people who don’t want to do us harm," Jackson Lee stated.
After death of the leader of al Qaeda at the hands of Navy SEALs on May 2, US authorities must be increasingly wary of terrorist attacks designed to avenge the killing.
"Many believe there will be an attempt of some kind in the next year. We need to know who is here to do good and who is here to do bad. The only way to do that is comprehensive immigration reform," Jackson Lee insisted.
Despite Republican resistance to an immigration reform bill, Jackson Lee voiced her belief in the possibility of forging a bipartisan accord in Congress.
"Frankly, we have had bipartisan support. We had it on the DREAM Act. Just a few Republicans balked in December and refused to allow this bill that had been worked on so hard to pass," she commented.
The congresswoman contended that Obama’s immigration proposal did not amount to a blanket amnesty as it would require payment of fines, extensive background checks, and even public service requirements, among other stipulations.
"We are willing to hearother suggestions but there are those that realize this is the right way to go," Jackson Lee said.
"This is going to be challenging. The President’s call to action is that this is no time to turn back," she added. "We must work in a bipartisan manner. But after so many stops and starts, it is now time to finish the job on immigration reform."
Republican leaders remained unconvinced, however, and indicated Tuesday that they would continue to oppose any immigration reform measure in the House. Republicans have vowed to block comprehensive immigration reform legislation since their takeover of the House after the 2010 mid-term elections.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, demanded more "operational control" of US borders before consideration of immigration reform.
"The non-partisan Government Accountability Office has found that only 44 percent of the border is under the operational control of the Border Patrol, and only 15 percent is under actual control," Smith said in a statement. "Mr. President, 44 percent is a failing grade. And if 44 percent is the most secure the border has ever been, it’s time to get to work to improve the grade. The American people expect nothing less than an A+ on border security."
Smith also blamed the Obama administration for declining worksite enforcement, which he said has been down by 70 percent since 2008.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, agreed that Obama must offer more border security solutions.
"The President has again called for amnesty for illegal immigrants without offering a single proposal to actually improve the security of our borders," King said in a statement. "After nearly two-and-a-half years in office, President Obama has yet to present the American people with a comprehensive plan for securing the border against illegal immigration.
"The President implying, ‘We’ve done enough, the border is secure,’ does not make it so. Our border is definitely not secure," he added.