Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

Anti-Immigrant State Laws Could Multiply, Obama Warns

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jul 1 2010 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama criticised “ill conceived” immigration laws in Arizona and called on Republicans to end their opposition to immigration reform and pass bipartisan immigration reform in speech delivered Thursday morning.

Immigration reform has become a pressing issue in Washington as individual states, such as Arizona, have passed their own immigration related laws.

Obama blasted the Arizona law, saying “states like Arizona have decided to take matters into their own hands. Given the levels of frustration across the country, this is understandable. But it is also ill-conceived,” at a speech delivered at American University in Washington DC.

In April, Arizona announced strict new laws allowing police officers to stop and question anyone who they believe might be in the U.S. illegally – a law that many critics say would encourage racial profiling.

“These laws also have the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning because of what they look like or how they sound,” said Obama.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an Ecuadorean television station that the U.S. government would be “bringing a lawsuit” to challenge the Arizona law but the administration has not made any further announcements about a lawsuit.

Obama’s denunciation of the Arizona law was welcomed by groups which have expressed concern over the civil rights implications for Latinos in Arizona.

“The president’s speech comes at a crucial moment – we have a civil rights crisis in our hands due to federal inaction on immigration. He understands that the solution to our broken immigration system lies in Washington, not in Phoenix,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organisation.

“But a speech alone is not enough, and it will not make a difference if the president does not follow through and push both parties in Congress to move a bill forward. It is time to see who stands for solutions and who wants to continue playing politics with people’s lives and America’s interests,” Murguía continued.

Obama has spoken out against the new law in the past but with midterm elections coming up in the fall, the White House has been eager to curb criticisms that the Democratic Party is lax on national security and immigration.

In May, the White House announced it would be sending 1,200 National Guard troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border after pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to tighten border security and increase funding to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S.

In his speech Thursday, Obama warned that the lack of immigration reform at the federal level is resulting in inconsistent policies, as individual states pass their own immigration enforcement legislation.

“[A]s other states and localities go their own ways, we face the prospect that different rules for immigration will apply in different parts of the country – a patchwork of local immigration rules where we all know one clear national standard is needed,” said Obama.

Obama called on Republicans to join Democrats in Congress to pass immigration reform.

Immigration reform, he said, “cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality.”

Obama endorsed the attempts by Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham to form a bipartisan framework to address immigration reform but noted that some Republicans who had supported immigration reform under President George W. Bush were now opposing Democratic-led reform for partisan reasons.

Obama committed himself to immigration reform which improves border security but preserves the U.S.’s history as, “a nation of immigrants… who believed that there was a place that they could be, at long last, free to work and worship and live their lives in peace.”

At the heart of the contentious issue of immigration reform is the question of what to do with the 11 million undocumented workers currently in the U.S.

Obama was adamant that neither mass deportation nor mass amnesty are acceptable solutions, saying that “if the majority of Americans are sceptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also sceptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive.”

“Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation, because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric,” he added.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters on Wednesday that, “[Obama] thinks this debate is about accountability – accountability for securing the border, accountability for employers who are hiring illegal immigrants, and accountability for those who are in this country illegally.”

When campaigning for president, Obama promised to pass immigration reform early in his first term but it appears increasingly unlikely that he will make much substantive progress before midterm elections in the fall.

But with immigration emerging as a hot-button issue during the lead up to midterm elections, Obama’s speech places immigration reform high on the Democrat’s domestic policy agenda.

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