UPDATED July 2
WASHINGTON (BP)–President Obama called for the federal government “to fix a broken immigration system” in a speech that Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land commended as a necessary first step to reform.
Acknowledging Washington’s failure to deal with an issue that has led to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, Obama called for continued work to secure the borders, increased enforcement of the law against employers who hire undocumented workers, and a series of requirements that people in this country illegally must meet to gain legal status.
The president rejected both “blanket amnesty” for and deportation of illegal immigrants. He also said the “legal immigration system is as broken as the borders” and needs reform.
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), applauded Obama for a “bold and important speech.”
“There are some things that require presidential leadership, and the immigration issue is one of them,” said Land, who attended the July 1 speech at American University in Washington, D.C. “This speech by the president, in and of itself, will not solve the immigration crisis, but this speech was a necessary prerequisite to bringing about a fair and just solution to the immigration crisis that is rending the social fabric of our nation.
“In any marriage, you have to first have an initial proposal,” he said. “The president proposed this morning. It’s up to the Congress to now accept that proposal or to construct its own proposal and to bring forth a bill that will consummate the marriage. We need to call upon our congressmen and senators to behave like statesmen. Politicians think about the next election; statesmen think about the next generation.”
Though chances for passage of a bill this year appear unlikely, Obama called for Republicans to join the Democrats and him in supporting reform. He charged that many of the 11 GOP senators who backed reform previously had changed their positions “under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics.”
“Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes,” Obama said. “That is the political and mathematical reality.”
There are 56 Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats and 41 Republicans in the Senate following the June 28 death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D.-W.Va.
After the president’s speech, Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, expressed disappointment, asserting Obama is still not leading on the issue.
“President Obama said he and Congressional Democrats are ready to move forward, but the only legislation they’ve moved forward are partisan bills to increase spending, take over our health care system, and bail out Wall Street,” Cornyn said in a written statement. “They made a strategic decision to put immigration on the back burner, and they now claim they can’t even propose immigration legislation without a Republican. It’s time for the President and Congressional Democrats to stop the charade.
“I have told President Obama that I am committed to credible, bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform, and that I am willing to work with anyone who shares that commitment.”
In his speech, Obama cited some of the same requirements the ERLC’s Land has listed as necessary for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship or legal work status. The president said illegal immigrants must acknowledge they broke the law, register, pay a fine and taxes, and learn English.
Land, who supports comprehensive immigration reform, also has said illegal immigrants must undergo a criminal background check, pledge allegiance to the United States government and its values, serve a years-long probationary period and wait behind legal immigrants.
Land has called for the borders to be secured before other aspects of immigration reform go into effect. Obama indicated, however, he does not have such a requirement.
“[T]here are those who argue that we should not move forward with any other elements of reform until we have fully sealed our borders,” Obama said. “But our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols. It won’t work.”
Land, who also has recommended a “biometric, tamper-proof Social Security card” for all workers, said, “The problem is always in the details, and I believe that any solution that will meet the fundamental requirement of being accepted by the American people will include securing the border first with measurable metrics that have been certified as met by the federal government in terms of stemming the flow of illegal immigration prior to the implementation of any program that would allow currently undocumented workers to begin a probationary pathway toward legal status, which would include going to the back of the line behind those who have been and are trying to come here legally.”
The president criticized the controversial new law enacted in Arizona as “ill conceived,” though he said it was “understandable,” given the federal government’s failure to act. He said the law had caused division and had placed “huge pressures on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable.”
The Arizona law enacted in April requires police to check with the federal government on a person’s status if they suspect during a stop, detention or arrest he might be in the country illegally. Critics have charged the law legalizes racial profiling and have called for a variety of boycotts of the state, but Americans have expressed their support for the law in opinion surveys.
Land repeated his opinion that the Arizona law “is a cry for help from a state that is in crisis because the federal government has not done its job for many years now.”
“President Obama has laid out the groundwork for the beginning of an urgent conversation that must be taken up immediately to bring about a solution to this crisis so that we can begin to mend the social fabric, rather than continue to rend it,” Land said.
In 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution on immigration that urged increased border security, enforcement of the laws, and judicious and realistic dealings with illegal immigrants, while encouraging Christian outreach to immigrants regardless of their legal status.
Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and a leader in the seeker-sensitive church movement, introduced Obama before his speech.
Other evangelical leaders attending who support comprehensive reform were Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.