11/21/2014 05:47 EST | Updated 01/21/2015 05:59 EST

Obama's Pretty Words Hide the Reality of U.S. Immigration

US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House November 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to nine people and the National Medal of Science to ten others. The National Medal of Scientists honors individuals for their outstanding contributions in fields such as biology, physics, and math. The National Medal of Technology and Innovation honors the Nations visionary thinkers whose creativity and intellect have made a lasting impact on the US and its workforce. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Undocumented immigrants in the United States can live without fear of immediate deportation. In an address from the White House, President Barack Obama announced yesterday the details of his deal.

Those who qualify for the three-year deportation amnesty must have lived in the U.S. for over five years, have American or permanent resident children, have no criminal record, and be willing to pay taxes. Immigrants simply register with the government to get its protection.

The American immigration debate has set the floor low: one proposal is to deport everyone, an estimated 11 million undocumented people. In this context, the president's reform is ambitious. But if we think about the ceiling, for example an amnesty that offers access to citizenship, then its modesty sinks in. Immigrants don't have a pathway to permanence or citizenship -- Obama emphasized his deal grants legal but not permanent status -- and they don't have great security in the promise of deportation relief from a lame duck president.

Obama is using his powers of executive authority because Congress has not allowed a vote on immigration reform. Although it's within the law, his order is controversial and Republicans have vowed to kill the action in the new term with a Republican majority, a tall order but not impossible. That gives Obama's deal to immigrants a Swiftian modesty: sign your names here, and I won't deport you; but Congress might later, and they'll have this handy list.

Still, it was a good speech. Actions matter more than words, but in his speech to Americans, Obama's words overshadowed his actions. He spoke to hearts and minds, outlining an aspirational set of shared values on immigration. His subtext was 'we're not there yet,' but speaking ten steps ahead of hearts and minds is how to get there.

The values are found in a series of Obama's rhetorical questions:

"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?"

Bubbling to the surface here is fairness. It's not fair to use people for 3-D work (dirty, difficult, dangerous) and send them home. People should get opportunity in return for their labour. These questions also surface hard work. It's not a free ride to opportunity, it takes sweat and tears, an echo of American immigration through history. For hard work, people should be rewarded. And then there's hope. Why do people come to America, why do they put up with 3-D work for years on end? Because there's hope that outcomes will be better if not for themselves, then for their children. People should be able to hold onto hope.

"Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms, or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together?"

The reform is grounded in family. Immigrants are not units of labour. They're units of a family. The humanitarian edge of the reform is that it keeps families intact, specifically letting undocumented parents stay with their documented children. Opportunity for the children or keeping the family together should not be a choice that parents in America have to make.

"Are we a nation that educates the world's best and brightest in our universities only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us, or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America?"

Undocumented students are the focus here and Obama is calling them a resource. This is about competition. Students are the world's best and brightest, and they should be treated as an asset in a competitive global talent market.

These values of fairness, hard work, hope, family, and competition are embedded in the American psyche, but are not widely shared when it comes to immigration. Maybe they were once, but the immigration debate has been cleaved in half partly because of the undocumented problem and refusal to face it with a bipartisan solution. Obama is right to strike an aspirational tone.

It is slightly depressing, however. Because the aspiration is so far from the reality. At one point Obama went personal and said that some undocumented immigrants, "except for the circumstances of their birth are as American as Malia or Sasha." And yet they get temporary relief from deportation, not citizenship or even permanent residence. Millions of potential Americans might never become Americans.


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