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Obama's immigration speech echoes Bush in policy, rhetoric

Both presidents took a centrist position while calling for more border security. They also favored a path to citizenship for immigrants and opposed rounding up those who were in the U.S. illegally.

July 03, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Though he is quick to deride former President George W. Bush's performance in office, President Obama seems to think his predecessor gives a pretty good immigration speech.

Obama's widely publicized speech on the controversial topic Thursday closely tracks, in rhetoric and basic policy, a speech Bush gave on the same subject in May 2006.

Speaking at American University, Obama delivered an address intended to rally the nation behind a plan that would strengthen border security while providing a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

Obama's speech was longer than the one Bush delivered four years ago — 4,100 words compared with 2,600. Bush, speaking from the Oval Office, did not have to expend words thanking people. And Obama used the occasion to recap victories on healthcare and education.

But in fundamental ways, the speeches carry the same message. The parallels show the two presidents — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — have staked out basically the same centrist position on immigration.

The speeches also reveal similarities in ways presidents of both parties communicate with the public.

After reading a transcript of Obama's immigration address, former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer said in an e-mail that "this speech could almost word for word have been delivered by George W. Bush on the exact same subject. Do they just copy our old speeches?"

Latimer, who wrote a book called "Speech-Less" that was critical of the Bush speechwriting operation, added, "That's not a compliment."

The policy similarities are not that surprising. Bush, even before he ran for president, was at odds with many in his party on immigration. As governor of Texas, he challenged Republicans — including the California governor at the time, Pete Wilson — who took a hard line on immigration and wanted a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Bush's position was ultimately repudiated by his party and he was repeatedly rebuffed by Republicans in Congress when he offered proposals for tightening borders but also creating a path to citizenship for immigrants.

A White House official said Friday he did not believe that anyone examined Bush's old speeches while drafting the Obama address. Rather, the speech was written by a member of the president's speechwriting team, with Obama providing "a good deal of writing," the official said.

Both speeches talk about immigrants who "live in the shadows." Both mention immigrants who came to the U.S. in search of "a better life." Both describe the U.S. as "a nation of immigrants" and reject calls to "round up" people who are here illegally.

And both use the same language about business. Obama said businesses "must be held accountable" for hiring undocumented workers; Bush said, "We need to hold employers to account."

Plunging into the body of his speech, Obama discussed how "in recent days the issue of immigration has become once more a source of fresh contention in our country." That's a reference to the strict new anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona, which has touched off protests and lawsuits.

Bush, in his speech, alluded to a wave of street protests in favor of an immigration overhaul, saying, "The issue of immigration stirs intense emotions, and in recent weeks, Americans have seen those emotions on display."

Neither Bush nor Obama wanted to be seen as neglecting border enforcement. Obama said that "government has a threshold responsibility to secure our borders," whereas Bush said that securing the border is "a basic responsibility of a sovereign state."

Each president laid out steps they'd taken to prevent illegal crossings, using the same multipliers. Bush said he "doubled" the size of the Border Patrol; Obama said that he "doubled" the personnel assigned to border enforcement security "task forces."

Yet neither claimed that the borders are impregnable. Bush said, "We do not yet have full control of the border." Obama said that the Mexican border is more secure than ever, but acknowledged that "that doesn't mean we don't have more work to do."

Both speeches use a device in which they rejected what they portrayed as extreme positions — blanket amnesty on the one hand, and deportation of all illegal immigrants on the other.

Instead of those extremes, each president said, the country should adopt a more moderate alternative in which illegal immigrants could gain legal status by meeting tough requirements.

Bush said immigrants must "pay their taxes" and "learn English." Obama used the same language — "pay their taxes" and "learn English," among other things.

And at some point in each speech, the president told an inspiring story of an immigrant who came to the U.S., joined the military and gained citizenship.

Bush mentioned Guadalupe Denogean from Mexico, who joined the Marines and was wounded in Iraq. Obama's example was Perla Ramos, who came to the U.S. from Mexico after the Sept. 11 attacks, joined the Navy and became a citizen.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Julia Love in the Washington bureau contributed to this story.

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