The issue of immigration, a headlining topic dividing 2016 presidential candidates, was only referenced in passing during President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday.
Obama began his presidency with promises to enact comprehensive immigration reform. But nearly eight years later, and with more than 2 million immigrant deportations under his watch, Obama leaves behind a mixed legacy on immigration, with sweeping executive actions that are currently tied up in the courts.
Obama’s final State of the Union comes as celebrity real estate mogul Donald Trump has emerged as among Republicans’ top picks to become his successor. Trump rose in popularity as a straight-talking outsider willing to challenge political norms. He tapped into nativist resentment toward immigrants and by building off a heightened sense of fear against foreigners in the wake of terrorist attacks both in California and Paris.
On Tuesday Obama challenged an idea popularized in the GOP presidential campaign that “political correctness” has led leaders to tiptoe around substantive issues. In a firm rebuke to states that have tried to ban Syrian refugees and the GOP candidates who propose sweeping bans against Muslims, Obama said the U.S. should not be targeting people based on their race or religion. Driving that point home, one of the night’s featured guests sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama’s gallery was a Syrian refugee who now lives in Detroit.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.”