Real Reform? Immigration in Obama’s SOTU

Written by Gabriela Monico

During last night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama brought up a number of issues ranging from education to gun reform to climate change. It is arguable, however, that one of the biggest issues the Obama administration will tackle in its second term is immigration reform.

Let’s flash back to Election Night 2012 where Obama handily beat Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, due in no small part to the much-coveted Latino vote. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos voted for Obama 71% to Romney’s 27%. Though Latinos, like the majority, overwhelmingly cited the economy as their top priority, it’s no secret that immigration is a chief concern. Now it seems both sides, especially Republicans, are actively switching positions on the issue. Since that November election there seems to be a new possibilities for real immigration reform. But what is real immigration reform?

Though he spent a limited amount of time on it last night, President Obama did reiterate key points and his position on immigration reform, which he first revealed in a speech devoted to the issue that he gave in Nevada two weeks ago. Below are a couple of excerpts from his SOTU address along with my thoughts and concerns:

1)    “Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

Paying taxes– Obama inadvertently adds to the widespread myth that undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes and instead, take advantage of the government. This is debatable. According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, unauthorized immigrants paid $8.4 billion in sales taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes, and $1.2 billion in personal income taxes in 2010. With that said, while undocumented people usually file taxes they get nothing in return. I personally know people who are undocumented and have paid taxes for several years, in preparation and hopes for immigration reform, but never collected a refund check for fear of making themselves visible to the government.

Meaningful penalty– How much are we talking about? This could potentially range between $2,500 to $10,000. I mean, nowadays even legal residents have to pay a hefty price in order to become naturalized citizens.  The fee to register as a legal permanent resident is $985 (plus $80 for biometrics), the application for naturalization fee is $595, and the application for a naturalization certificate costs $600. While some individuals don’t have to worry about coming up with that kind of money, low wages would prevent a substantial number of undocumented families from legalizing. Imagine being an undocumented single parent of 3. Would you be able to pay a “meaningful penalty” of, let’s say the $10,000 proposed in the 2007 Senate bill, for you and your children with a $20,000 salary?

Learning English– This requirement would potentially exclude up to 5.8 million undocumented immigrants from legalizing. While speaking English is indeed fundamental to the incorporation of immigrants into American society and polity, it would be unrealistic to ask those seeking legalization to take this step unless there is investment in resources that facilitate the learning of English.

Going to the back of the line– There’s really no such thing as a line for many undocumented immigrants. For others, the line is endless. A percentage of the current undocumented population in the U.S. was not eligible to immigrate legally into this country for various reasons including, but not limited to, not having a U.S. Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident who could petition for them and not being skilled. For the lucky ones who are able to get in the back of the line, it can take several years to acquire legal status. For instance, this month, the sister of a U.S. citizen living in the Philippines is eligible for a green card if her priority date is on or before June 1st, 1989. That’s ONLY 22 years!

2)    “Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

Any CIR bill? As the polls of the election night demonstrated and what future demographics point to (in 2014 Latinos are poised to become the majority in states like California), the president and congress have a mandate to pass comprehensive immigration reform and with all signs pointing to the real possibilities of enacting it for the first time in a generation, let’s make sure that it is the immigration reform we’ve been waiting for and deserve, not the one that is the easiest to pass.

For more information about Obama’s position, check out this comprehensive document titled. Building a 21st Century Immigration System.

On a different note, I find Obama’s proposal to make pre-school accessible for everyone, establish a voting rights commission and raising the minimum wage promising for Latinos.

Stay tuned to see how these issues develop and how both the Democrats and Republicans navigate them. Let’s hope this is more successful than Marco Rubio’s response to Obama.


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