Commentary by Mary Sanchez: Americans don't need to be mollycoddled with phrasings from the Statue of Liberty and references to the U.S. being a land of immigrants.
Grade C, Mr. President. That's how I rate your speech on immigration, pitched as a message "to make the clear case for comprehensive immigration reform." Americans don't need to be mollycoddled with phrasings from the Statue of Liberty and references to the U.S. being a land of immigrants. They need to be spoken to honestly. So please, admit the truth.
The fact is that immigration reform has about as much chance of passing this year as General Stanley McChrystal has at getting his job back. It's not happening. And it shouldn't happen. Not while the country is reeling economically and politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, must contend with upcoming November elections. The type of massive reforms necessary to straighten out our immigration entanglements shouldn't be crammed through the U.S. Congress.
And more than just Republicans are hesitant. So I take issue with your contention that Democrats are ready and eager to take up reforms. Many of them are fearful of being labeled "soft on immigration" by some opponent with bucks to spend on campaign commercials. Skittish politicians seeking re-election are simply not up to this task.
I realize you tried to strike the right balance of holding the federal government, businesses and immigrants accountable. Getting there will be the chore.
You accurately pointed out that the rallying cry to secure the border first and foremost is a disingenuous premise. It doesn't address the fact that about 40 percent of the illegal population initially arrived legally, and then never went home. And that group, many of whom are former foreign students and visitors from a wide range of countries, did not cross our southern border in the dead of night.
And this was a nice flourish in phrasing, reminiscent of your past speeches: "I believe we can appeal not to people's fears, but to their hopes, to their highest ideals. Because that's who we are as Americans." But first we need to address those fears. And right now, there is a lot of fear — some of it based in reality but much of it based in the distortions propagated by people on both sides of the immigration debate.
The assumption many Americans make is that there is a legal way for low-wage immigrants to arrive in the U.S. — if only they were honest and upstanding enough to pursue that option. But such an option doesn't really exist.
Oh, I realize you touched on this and other realities. You also argued that the Arizona law could potentially undercut law enforcement's effectiveness. You noted that the immigration issue is hopelessly muddled by demagoguery.
Just say it. Not everyone who opposes illegal immigration is racist. In fact, the vast majority are not. But many among the herd-'em-up-and-ship-'em-home crowd are extremely uninformed. They believe that their ancestors arrived legally, were intent on learning English, and were eager to "be an American." But for most of our ancestors, that wasn't true. Many past waves of immigrants more or less just showed up. The whole rigmarole of getting a visa didn't even exist until recent decades.
Immigrants today — those legally arriving and those without permission — tend to learn English at the same, and in many cases a faster, rate than prior generations. Today, as always, people who immigrated as adults tend to struggle with English, their children are bilingual, and the next generation is monolingual — in English.
Politicians aren't going to act on this issue until they believe the general public has reached a clearer consensus and won't hold them accountable in the election booth. So maybe what is needed is more hard talk about facts.
As president, you are uniquely situated to begin speaking to the public more frankly. Simply saying diversity is good, and pointing out that immigrants add youthful energy in an increasingly global economy, won't convince any but the already converted.
Educate, push — shove if you must — the nation forward to the reforms we desperately need.
So really, Mr. President, I appreciate the gesture. But as a motivator for change, this little chat with the U.S. public didn't take us very far.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.