Obama Makes Economic Case For Immigration : It's All Politics In his El Paso, Tex. speech Tuesday, the president had to explain why legalizing millions of illegal immigrants wouldn't hurt Americans economically. He argued that illegal immigrants force down U.S. wages since workers lacking legal status can be more readily exploited by unethical employers.
NPR logo Obama Makes Economic Argument To Americans For Immigration Overhaul

Obama Makes Economic Argument To Americans For Immigration Overhaul

President Obama makes an economic case for immigration reform at the Chamizal National Memorial on Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. Jewel Samad/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Jewel Samad/Getty Images

President Obama makes an economic case for immigration reform at the Chamizal National Memorial on Tuesday in El Paso, Texas.

Jewel Samad/Getty Images

President Obama realizes he has a problem on the immigration front.

Actually, he has a few problems. But one of the gnarliest is that the notion of providing millions of illegal immigrants with a path to legalization raises the economic anxiety of millions of Americans.

Even before the housing bubble burst in 2007, overhauling immigration was a heavy lift. That's even more true now with Americans much more worried about jobs than they were the last time Congress and a president, then George W. Bush, tried to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

So in his speech in El Paso, Tex. Tuesday along the U.S.-Mexico border, the president had to find a way to explain why legalizing millions of illegal immigrants wouldn't hurt Americans economically.

His argument was that it's the illegal nature of these immigrants that forces down U.S. wages since workers lacking legal status can be more readily exploited by unethical employers.

Obama said:

Think about it. Over the past decade, even before the recession hit, middle-class families were struggling to get by as the costs went up for everything, from health care, to college tuition, to groceries, to gas. Their incomes didn't go up with those prices. We're seeing it again right now with gas prices.

So one way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else. I want incomes for middle-class families to rise again. (Applause.) I want prosperity in this country to be widely shared. (Applause.) I want everybody to be able to reach that American dream. And that's why immigration reform is an economic imperative. It's an economic imperative. (Applause.)

Adding another wrinkle to his economic argument, the president said fixing the U.S.' immigration system, which is widely seen as broken, would help the U.S. win the future, to use a phrase he's found of, by making it more competitive:

OBAMA: And reform will also help to make America more competitive in the global economy. Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. (Applause.)

But then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States. Instead of training entrepreneurs to stay here, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can attract, all the talent we can get to stay here to start businesses — not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contribution will benefit all Americans.

Look at Intel, look at Google, look at Yahoo, look at eBay. All those great American companies, all the jobs they've created, everything that has helped us take leadership in the high-tech industry, every one of those was founded by, guess who, an immigrant. (Applause.)

So we don't want the next Intel or the next Google to be created in China or India. We want those companies and jobs to take root here. (Applause.) Bill Gates gets this. He knows a little something about the high-tech industry. He said, "The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete."

So immigration is not just the right thing to do. It's smart for our economy.

Not that the president didn't make the moral argument, for instance, that it doesn't square with American values to break up families through deportation. Or to punish young people who were brought into the U.S. as children illegally by their parents.

But he clearly was aware that if he was to make any progress with the American people on an immigration overhaul, to get more voters to see it his way, he needed to make a strong appeal that it's in their economic interest to fix the current system.

As I wrote earlier, immigration reform is a political no-brainer for the president and congressional Democrats since it energizes the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. That demographic just so happens to be an important part of the Democratic base.

It also puts congressional Republicans and GOP presidential hopefuls in a tricky spot since their party's base has proportionally more immigration hardliners than the Democratic Party.

That made the speech, an official presidential event, arguably something of a campaign event too.

And the president gave the event a campaign feel by telling his audience if they agreed with his approach on immigration reform, they should contact WhiteHouse.gov. Campaigns often use such techniques to collect email addresses.

While it's good politics for Democrats to make the strongest appeal possible to Latinos, the president suggested that some Republicans saw it as good politics to focus strictly on border enforcement to the exclusion of everything else, including figuring out how to normalize the 11 million illegal immigrants.

And he tried to have some fun at their expense though an edgy response he got from at least one audience member violated an Obama commandment, a rule of a president who has worked hard to not push deep-seated racial hot buttons — Thou shalt not play the race card:

OBAMA: ... The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents — more than twice as many as there were in 2004. It's a build-up that began under President Bush and that we've continued, and I had a chance to meet some of these outstanding agents, and actually saw some of them on horseback who looked pretty tough. (Laughter.) So we put the agents here.

Then they wanted a fence. Well, the fence is --


THE PRESIDENT: The fence is now basically complete.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Tear it down!

THE PRESIDENT: Then we've gone further. We tripled the number of intelligence analysts working at the border. I've deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the skies from Texas to California. We have forged a partnership with Mexico to fight the transnational criminal organizations that have affected both of our countries. (Applause.) And for the first time — for the first time we're screening 100 percent of southbound rail shipments to seize guns and money going south even as we go after drugs that are coming north. (Applause.)

So, here's the point. I want everybody to listen carefully to this. We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we've done. But even though we've answered these concerns, I've got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: They're racist!

THE PRESIDENT: You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat. (Laughter.) Maybe they want alligators in the moat. (Laughter.) They'll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That's politics.

As for Obama's outline for reform, it's essentially what Senate Democrats and Republicans came up with when Obama was in the Senate.

Illegal immigrants would have to pay their taxes and a fine for breaking the law, learn English and undergo a background check before they would be allowed to remain in the U.S. legally. Hardliners will immediately dismiss this as amnesty.

Meanwhile, the system would be overhauled to make it easier for immigrants, especially highly skilled ones sought by Silicon Valley high-tech firms and other employers, to enter and remain in the U.S.

We may be four years or so on from the last time all these kinds of ideas were proposed but the results are likely to be the same as then, that is, not much is likely to change, at least not before 2012.