Obama calls for immigration reform
President Barack Obama has called for "comprehensive" reform of US immigration laws in a landmark speech in Las Vegas, following up on his inaugural promise to put the issue at the top of his second-term agenda.
He unveiled 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. Now’s the time,” he said to applause in a speech at a high school in Nevada.
Mr Obama said that all people who came to the US were immigrants once, listing many nationalities in his speech including “the Irish who left behind a land of famine.”
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 to put the illegal immigrants on the path to becoming US citizens.
“Now the good news is for the first time in many years Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together. Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution," he said.
“Yesterday, a bi-partisan group of Senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years. So at this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon, and that’s very encouraging.”
Mr Obama said there were economic reasons for reforming the laws, saying that many illegal immigrants try to go out and earn a living every day, often in “a shadow economy” which is bad for the entire economy.
“If we’re truly committed to strengthening our middle class and providing of opportunity into the middle class, we’ve got to fix the system,” he said.
“We’ve got to bring the shadow economy into the light.”
Addressing Republican and conservative concerns that reforms would go too far, he said that the US had to strengthen enforcement and security at borders and crack down on businesses that employ people illegally.
Referring to the 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, he said that these people “should earn their way to citizenship” but that “it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”
He said that people who trying to come to the US illegally should put to the “back of the line” of people who are trying to live in the US legally so they can earn their way to a green card and then citizenship.
Mr Obama 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 can join them in the US.
He also spoke about reforming laws to help foreign students work in the US and foreign entrepreneurs to start businesses and create jobs in the country.
He wanted the US to be a “magnet for the best and the brightest all the way around the world,” he said.
He 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.
The president again showed that he would act on his own if he didn't secure bipartisan support in a politically-divided Congress. If it wasn't willing to pass legislative changes, then he would present his own bill, he said.
Ciaran Staunton, president of the New York-based 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.
“Right now all they are doing is saying here is the outline – we shouldn’t read too much into what he is leaving in and leaving out.”
Any immigrant reforms passed by Congress leading to citizenship for the Irish undocumented would be the first time since the Morrison visas in 1990 that large numbers of Irish immigrants have secured legal status.
The US issued just 15,389 permanent resident visas to Irish nationals out of a total of 10.5 million issued between 2002 and 2011, according to statistics held by the US Department of Homeland Security. This put Ireland 85th in the list of countries that received permanent visas.