House advocates of comprehensive immigration reform were surprised and encouraged by President Barack Obama’s call in his State of the Union address for Congress to tackle the issue.
Obama, who drew fire from Latino groups a year ago for devoting just a single line to immigration in his State of the Union remarks, went further Tuesday night, saying it was his strong belief that policymakers in Washington “should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration,” tying the issue to his broader push to boost competitiveness.
“I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows,” Obama said. “I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses and further enrich this nation.”
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Charlie Gonzalez said that Obama told CHC members during a December meeting that he would mention the topic but that the president “said much more” than CHC members had anticipated.
“In essence, he was saying we need to move on comprehensive immigration reform,” the Texas Democrat said. “So I think that was very encouraging.”
Gonzalez added that he was optimistic that Obama’s comments could open the door for progress.
“We’ve had certain members of the Republican Party that have indicated they are open to a discussion, and we’re going to start it,” he said. “I’m just hoping that it was more than lip service. I know the president is sincere.”
Several rank-and-file members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said they did not know Obama was planning to address the issue.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva said he too was pleasantly surprised by the attention Obama gave to immigration, “given the tenor and the composition of this Congress,” and described Obama’s comments as “a bold statement.”
“It could have been ignored,” the Arizona Democrat said. “He didn’t.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, an advocate for immigration reform, said he was surprised that Obama decided to spend time laying a pathway forward.
“I didn’t think he was going to do it and he did, so I’m surprised,” the Texas Democrat said. “Whether we like it or not, we need to work together to secure the border more, and it’s not something that is going to go away.”
The chief Republican architect of a failed 2007 effort to pass immigration reform, Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), also said he was pleased, especially because he has introduced legislation that is similar to the provisions Obama mentioned for students in the country illegally.
“It’s not necessarily in the area of immigration so much as competitiveness, and that’s what this speech was about,” Flake said.
Key Senators, meanwhile, said Obama’s words were not enough. Last year, immigration reform advocates tried to garner 60 votes for a comprehensive bill but fell short, and the math only will get harder in the current Congress.
“I think it was good that he mentioned it, but I was hoping for more,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “When he talked about it, I thought there’d be a broader discussion than what I heard.”
Sen. John Cornyn said he was disappointed with Obama on immigration reform. “Every year he comes here and he says more or less the same thing, but he has demonstrated it is not a priority for him,” the Texas Republican said. “This is something that is going to require presidential leadership. It’s got to be more than pretty words, it’s got to be action.”
Cornyn pointed to President George W. Bush’s unsuccessful attempt at trying to move forward on legislation as a stronger effort to find compromise.
“President Bush used a lot of political capital to move the issue and it’s obviously very tough and complex, but Republicans, including me, are willing to work if [Obama is] serious about it rather than just talking about it,” Cornyn said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.