Obama calls for overhaul of laws on immigration
President Barack Obama has called for “comprehensive” reform of US immigration laws in a landmark speech, following up on an inaugural pledge just over a week ago to put the issue at the top of his second-term agenda.
He laid out ambitious plans to overhaul immigration laws that will put more than 11 million illegal immigrants, including thousands of undocumented Irish, on the road to citizenship.
“The time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform – the time is now,” he said to applause in a speech at a high school in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mr Obama said that all people who came to the US were immigrants once. He named many nationalities including “the Irish who left behind a land of famine” who made up the “huddled masses” who arrived in the US through Ellis Island on the US east coast and Angel Island on the west.
The president’s speech came a day after a cross-party group of Democratic and Republican senators offered their own proposals for immigration reform.
Mr Obama acknowledged the rare alignment of the White House and the bipartisan group of senators on plans to change the laws in a highly contentious issue in American politics and society.
The proposals from the bi-partisan group of senators were “very much in line” with his own principles, he said.
Immigration reform, the president said, must not be based on “us and them”.
Obstacles on the way
The president acknowledged that there would be obstacles to immigration reform in Congress on the way to legislation passing. “The closer we get the more emotional this debate will become,” he said.
He again showed he would act on his own if he didn’t secure bipartisan support in a politically divided Congress, saying that he would present his own bill if both houses did not pass legislation.
Mr Obama said there were economic reasons for reforming the laws Many illegal immigrants tried to go out and earn a living every day, often in “a shadow economy” which was bad for the entire economy. “We’ve got to bring the shadow economy into the light.”
Addressing Republican and conservative concerns that reforms would go too far, he said the US had to strengthen enforcement and security at borders and crack down on businesses that employ people illegally.
He said that the legal system around immigration should be brought into the 21st century so that citizens “should haven’t to wait years” before their families could join them in the US. He also spoke about reforming laws to help foreign students work in the US and foreign entrepreneurs start businesses and create jobs in the country.
Ciarán Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, said that the speech was significant because it laid down a marker of the president’s intentions.
“The most important thing is that President Obama is saying that immigration reform is the next priority of his administration and the US government,” he said.
'I cannot get myself too excited and say we are booking flights home'
Bridget, who is originally from Co Kerry, has been living in the United States since 1990. Even though she qualified fully as a registered nurse in New York, her illegal status prevents her from working.
The 45-year-old woman, who didn’t want to be identified, is married to an English man who is also illegal in the US. They live in Yonkers, New York, and have two children, aged three years and nine months.
She used to travel home every year until 2002, when tighter travel and immigration controls after 9/11 stopped her from returning to Ireland.
The last time she was back in Co Kerry was in February 2002.
Bridget decided not to risk travelling home since then, fearing that she might not be allowed back into the US.
She has missed many family weddings and funerals in Ireland over the past decade.
She recognises that the motivation for the bipartisan push for immigration reform is the Hispanic demographic, of which 71 per cent voted for Obama in last year’s election, sealing his re-election.
“It is not an Irish vote, it is the Hispanic vote that is pushing Congress,” said Bridget.
She is not getting her hopes up about immigration reform like she did six years ago when a Bill was voted down.
“I am very hopeful and optimistic but I cannot get myself too excited and say we are booking flights home,” she said.
“A proposal was only announced in the Senate yesterday.
“It is a long road and there are a lot of peaks and valleys and opposition to overcome.”