Equity & Diversity

Obama Spotlights Undocumented Student in Immigration Speech

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 29, 2013 3 min read
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A day after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced its plan for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, President Barack Obama laid out his own plan for allowing as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status in the United States.

In an afternoon speech at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas—home to a large Hispanic student body and a special program for new English-language learners—Obama introduced an undocumented college student in the audience who would be among the many young people who could benefit from an expedited path to citizenship under the president’s framework.

Obama also called for a “fair” process to allow all unauthorized immigrants to seek citizenship while also reining in the time it takes for legal immigrants to obtain permanent residency and citizenship.

“We’ve got to lay out a path, a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English” and going to the back of the line behind those legal immigrants already in line to receive permanent status, he said. “It won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process. It will lift people out of the shadows.”

The president said the immigration reform framework outlined Monday by the Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Senate is “very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years” and that he was encouraged that members of both parties “seem ready to tackle this problem together.” He welcomed the new Senate plan, but warned he would send his own immigration measure to Congress if lawmakers deadlocked over the issue.

Where the president is likely to part ways with bipartisan group lawmakers is on their insistence that U.S. border security be tighter before undocumented immigrants can begin to seek legal status. He also cautioned that as the debate on comprehensive immigration reform moves forward it will become “more emotional” with strong efforts to tear it apart.

At the end of the short address, the president put the spotlight on Alan Aleman, an undocumented immigrant who was in the audience. Born in Mexico, Aleman was a child when his parents brought him to the U.S. Obama said the second-year student at the College of Southern Nevada is “American in every way except on paper.” According to the president, Aleman was one of the first youths in Nevada to be approved under the administration’s deferred action policy, which grants a two-year reprieve from deportation and clears the way for a legal work permit.

The president’s proposal would put so-called DREAMers such as Alan on an “expedited” path to earn their citizenship, according to a White House fact sheet. DREAMers are those immigrant youth who are the focus of the long-stalled DREAM Act. Under the Senate plan, DREAMers would similarly have fewer hurdles to clear in order to obtain citizenship as those unauthorized immigrants who arrived as adults. In their five-page document, the lawmakers acknowledged that immigrant youths “did not knowingly choose to violate any immigration law” and consequently, “will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship.”

Obama wrapped up his speech by saying, “Remember, this is not just a a debate about policy, it’s about people.”

To put that a bit more in perspective: In 2011, there were more than 40 million immigrants in the U.S., a record number, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of those, 11 million are undocumented, a number that fell from a peak of 12 million in 2007. Roughly 1 million unauthorized immigrants are under the age of 18.

And every year, American high schools produce 65,000 graduates who are unauthorized immigrants, according to the College Board.

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform on Tuesday at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. (Isaac Brekken/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.