WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama traveled Tuesday to the border city of El Paso, Texas, for a major speech in which he appealed to congressional Republicans to back immigration reform. In shirtsleeves under the broiling Texas sun, the president visited a port of entry before addressing a crowd gathered at a national monument within sight of the border.
Calling immigration reform an “economic imperative,” Obama urged Republicans to put politics aside in favor of legislation that would benefit the country. He used an example of a Mexican named José Hernández, born in California, to illustrate his point about the importance of immigration reform. In his anecdote about Hernández, the son of migrant workers, Obama mentioned Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. The U.S. president said that once Hernández learned that another Hispanic citizen had been to space, he decided to follow in Chang-Diaz’s footsteps.
Obama explained how Hernández grew up helping his parents picking cucumbers and strawberries. He didn’t learn English until he was 12 years old because he would miss school to spend the winters in Mexico. But Hernández loved math. His passion for math along with a discovery he made one day while listening to the radio, helped Hernández find his path in life.
“So José studied, and he studied hard. And one day, he’s standing in the fields, collecting sugar beets, and he heard on a transistor radio that a man named Franklin Chang-Diaz — a man with a surname like his — was going to be an astronaut for NASA. So José decided — right there in the field, he decided — well, I could be an astronaut, too.”
So José kept on studying, and he graduated high school. And he kept on studying, and he earned an engineering degree. And he kept on studying, and he earned a graduate degree. And he kept on working hard, and he ended up at a national laboratory, helping to develop a new kind of digital medical imaging system.”
And a few years later, he found himself more than 100 miles above the surface of the Earth, staring out of the window of the shuttle Discovery, and he was remembering the boy in the California fields with that crazy dream that in America everything is possible.”
A path to legalization for the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants will reduce the U.S. budget deficit by boosting tax revenues, while eliminating the scope for exploitation that keeps wages down, the president said.
“We need Washington to know that there is a movement for reform gathering strength from coast to coast,” Obama said, asking supporters of immigration overhaul to organize and put pressure on Congress.
Lawmakers have shown little appetite for tackling immigration, a deeply divisive issue in the United States.
Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, are mainly opposed to anything that smacks of amnesty for undocumented immigrants, preferring instead to concentrate on tightening the borders.
And even some in the president’s own party are not onboard, as was made plain in December, when five Democratic senators effectively voted against the DREAM Act, a bill to legalize undocumented youths who enlist in the Armed Forces or attend college.
Listing the steps taken to better secure the border with Mexico, such as doubling the size of the Border Patrol and the construction of an elaborate fence, Obama said Tuesday that some Republicans will “never be satisfied.”
“Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat,” the president said, spurring laughter among the audience.
“So, the question is whether those in Congress who previously walked away (from immigration reform) in the name of enforcement are now ready to come back to the table and finish the work we’ve started,” Obama said, vowing, “we’re going to keep up the fight for the DREAM Act. We’re going to keep up the fight for reform.”
His speech in El Paso followed a series of meetings at the White House with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, activists and celebrities to discuss the best way to achieve immigration reform.