From President Clinton’s stern 1995 call to stop “the large numbers of illegal aliens” taking American jobs to President Obama’s plea last year for legalizing “responsible young people” to work in the U.S. economy, the politics of immigration can be traced through State of the Union addresses.
In the 1990s, illegal immigration was an economic issue — viewed by many in the U.S. from through the lens of competition for jobs. It was a matter of security in President George W. Bush’s tenure after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But by Mr. Obama’s ascendance, immigration had become a moral issue and even the terminology had changed. Gone were phrases such as “illegal aliens” that Mr. Clinton used, and in their place were the “undocumented workers” Mr. Obama cited in his 2011 State of the Union.
“A lot’s definitely changed. It’s the politics aligning with the demographic changes,” said Angela Maria Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
All sides expect Mr. Obama to use his State of the Union address Tuesday to make a plea for a broad bill legalizing most illegal immigrants, repeating his call from last year to work “on comprehensive immigration reform.”
Bob Dane, communications director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said at a time when the economy is still struggling, he expects Mr. Obama to argue that legalizing illegal immigrants is good for the economy — a 180-degree turn from Mr. Clinton’s argument in the 1990s, when he made a starkly Americans-first argument.
“The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public services they use impose burdens on our taxpayers,” Mr. Clinton said in 1995. “It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.”
Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, who spearheaded Republican efforts on immigration over the past two decades, said Mr. Obama is wrong if he does argue that legalization will be good for Americans.
“American taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill for the overwhelming costs of amnesty. Under current law, once 11 million illegal immigrants receive probationary status, they will immediately have access to federal benefits like Social Security and Obamacare coverage. If we thought we had a problem with government spending before, just wait,” he said.
Mr. Obama has said he would try to carve out newly legalized immigrants so they aren’t eligible for benefits under his health care law.
The president wasn’t always so enthusiastic about pressing ahead with immigration. He didn’t mention the issue in his first address to Congress in 2009, and in 2010 he focused on border security and enforcing laws on the books.
But by 2011, when he was preparing to run for re-election, he called for a broad immigration bill to “address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.” Last year, in the heat of his re-election campaign, he called specifically for passage of the Dream Act, which would legalize illegal immigrants 30 and younger who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.
Ms. Kelley said she doesn’t expect Mr. Obama to go too deep into immigration in Tuesday’s address — particularly after giving a major speech in Las Vegas last month calling for action.
Mr. Bush did the same thing in 2004, delivering a speech calling specifically for immigration reform but dropping in only a line or two in his address to Congress.
Ms. Kelley said Mr. Bush had other domestic matters, such as reforming Social Security, that took precedence over immigration, in 2004 and 2005. That sapped his political capital, and by the time he pushed legislation in 2006 and 2007, Congress had turned against him.