Obama’s plan: Background checks, paying back taxes, English classes–and ultimately, citizenship

Undocumented immigrant Katherine Taberes, originally from Colombia, watches President Barack Obama's speech on immigration on January 29, 2013.
Undocumented immigrant Katherine Taberes, originally from Colombia, watches President Barack Obama's speech on immigration on January 29, 2013.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Barack Obama spoke much more aggressively about his policy proposals in his State of the Union address, including comprehensive immigration reform, which he introduced during his second inaugural address. In his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening, the president renewed his call for immigration reform and asked a divided Congress to work across the aisle to accomplish legislative action on a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

The president made immigration a top priority at the beginning of his second term, publicly speaking about the need for reform. In his address, Obama spoke of a stronger economy if comprehensive immigration reform were to pass. He tied the need for immigrant skills and labor to the larger economic picture, and argued that reform would substantially increase job growth and boost the nation’s shaky economy. The president stated, “Real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”

The president then turned to border control. “Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made–putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.”

Freed from having to face another election, President Obama spoke forcefully about his second-term agenda. Aides and advisers say they see a bolder and more aggressive President Obama since the start of his second term, according to The New York Times.  His “commanding self-assurance” was evident in his address with a deeper concentration on immigration reform and allowing illegal immigrants a gateway towards citizenship.

Obama focused on areas of importance to Latino families–job creation, education investments, and room for opportunity in communities. The president charged Congress to establish “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship–a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

Both the White House and Senate proposals offer a pathway to citizenship that include border reform, updating the legal immigration system and reducing visa backlogs, and expanding employment-based visas to include more green cards to skilled workers.

While speaking to House Democrats at their retreat last week, the president told them, “Even as I think it’s important to be humbled by the privilege of this office and the privilege of serving in the United States Congress, even as it’s important not to read too much into any particular political victory—because this country is big, it is diverse, it is contentious, and we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, and we need to remember that—despite all those things, I think it’s also important for us to feel confident and bold about the values we care about and what we stand for.”

DREAM Act student activist Alan Aleman was seated in the First Lady’s box during the State of the Union. Brought by his parents from Mexico when he was 11, Aleman is one of the first undocumented immigrants in Nevada to receive a work permit under deferred action and is currently studying biological science at the College of Southern Nevada. Last month, President Obama mentioned his name in a speech to push for immigration reform.

Aleman told the Las Vegas Sun in a recent interview, “I have my driver’s license now. I have my Social Security number now. I can apply for scholarships. So, I have more opportunities, and that’s the thing I was waiting on for a long time.” Several congressmen, including Senator Mark R. Warner and Congressman Luis Gutierrez, followed suit and invited undocumented immigrants to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to signal to Congress that immigration reform is not going away.

After the State of the Union, the president plans to go to North Carolina, Georgia, and Illinois to pitch his proposals to the public, following a tradition of presidents who launch a post-speech tour in hopes of rallying the public.  As the momentum for immigration reform continues to grow, a bipartisan group of six senators agreed on a framework for reform and negotiated an immigration overhaul bill a few weeks ago. The Democratic senators in the immigration “gang of eight” plan to update President Obama on their progress Wednesday at the White House.

The group plans to present a complete bill by next month. President Obama spoke of their progress. “As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts.  Now let’s get this done.  Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

Related links: ‘Let’s get it done’: Confident and combative, President Obama took charge in his State of the Union speech.  Read about what he said on voting rights, the minimum wage, deficit reduction, and education. Read or watch the full speech here.