Obama Immigration Speech: A Conventional Failure

The president stepped up Thursday to update his campaign promise of immigration reform. But Tunku Varadarajan says his words were banal, completely conventional, and full of empty rhetoric.

President Barack Obama speaks at the American University School of International Service Building July 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)

When a president recites Emma Lazarus in a speech on immigration—and recites not merely a fragment or two but virtually the entire length of The New Colossus—one is inclined to conclude that his speech was written by someone who has just graduated from high school and has a young head brimming with social studies. This being President Obama, however, one can conclude that he will have written a fair portion of the speech himself, and, in so concluding, one would be struck forcefully by how banal the speech was. It was, if one can say such a thing, the acme of boilerplate, so utterly conventional was it in its narrative of American immigration.

Click Below to Watch Obama’s Immigration Speech

America, a nation of immigrants? Check. Hardworking people who come here only to improve their lives, and those of their families? Check. Being American isn't a matter only of blood and birth? Check. The system is broken? Check. The need for reform? Check.

Speaking at the American University Thursday, the president began by patting himself on the back for his administration's achievements to date, all attained "despite the forces of the status quo": health care, Wall Street reform, and—wait for this—"accelerating the transition to a clean economy." Immigration reform, he indicated, ought to be next, and he gave us a civics lesson on the nature of our society, the centrality of immigrants and immigration, and the tensions that exist between our being "a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."

Bryan Curtis: Obama’s Immigration Surge Predictably, he came out against an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants in this country, estimated at 11 million people. The president is a smart man and knows political suicide when he sees it. Equally predictably, he said that deportation of these people was not an option, such a course being "logistically impossible and wildly expensive." Besides, "it would tear at the fabric of our society" and "disrupt our economy." So, what do we do? We must "navigate" between the two poles of mass amnesty and mass deportation. Don't you see?

The speech was basically a thing of sops: In itself, it was a sop to the organized Latino lobby, which knows that nothing will happen before the November elections, and which knows, also, that next year—with likely GOP gains in Congress—nothing will happen either. (They are grasping, I understand, at Obama's private hints that he will take care of the lobby, in some palliative way, in the lame-duck session of Congress in December.)

The speech was also a sop to the unions, in its attack on businesses that seek to stay competitive by hiring illegal immigrants, thus circumventing a raft of government-mandated additions to the cost of doing business (Exhibit A: the minimum wage): "Those who hire illegal immigrants put law-abiding businesses at a disadvantage." As if on cue, the SEIU's response to the speech consisted of a number of GOP-bashing declarations, including this one: "The GOP isn't on the side of small business owners who follow the law only to see that law skirted by opportunistic employers that exploit immigrants and drive down standards for workers."

Obama concluded with the usual pro forma appeal for bipartisanship—an appeal that sounded particularly anemic today. Immigration reform, he said, "cannot pass without Republican votes." That is true, and that is precisely why he won't get them—especially not in the run up to an election that, Republicans hope, will knock the wind decisively from the Obama administration.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)