A sign reading "Immigration Reform Now" is held aloft in Queens,… (Mario Tama / Getty Images )
LAS VEGAS -- In a telephone news conference after President Obama's speech on immigration, U.S. labor leaders, educators, clergy and civil rights advocates said they were pleased that the White House spelled out the job ahead without partisan undertone.
“I think he struck the right tone," said Frank Sherry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund. "He stressed both parties coming together but assured us that 'if this causes delay and things don’t happen, I’ll step in.’ I think Republicans who feared he might big-foot the process were glad he didn’t, and Democrats are happy that he was assertive and put the Republicans on notice that he won’t wait forever. That tension is healthy.”
Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the ACLU, was also pleased with the tone Obama struck in his address here Tuesday.
TRANSCRIPT: President Obama on immigration
"He talked about all Americans and where they came from and stressed that this is a nation of immigrants,” she said. “It was not a combative speech, but one that enlisted more people to pay attention to immigration reform. It was not like his inaugural speech that pointed out a more liberal agenda. He got this one right. It was right down the middle and had something for both parties.”
The president’s proposal calls for creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet various criteria, such as passing national security and criminal background checks. His proposal also calls for measures to deter employers from hiring workers who are in the country illegally.
Even before the speech, advocates on each side of the immigration issue had lined up facing each other on a street outside Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.
Waving a banner that read “No Amnesty” and carrying a small American flag in his other hand, Raymond Herrera accused the president of rehashing old ideas that would never work. “It’s the same old story. Millions of American workers replaced by criminals from Mexico," he said. "Now he wants to give illegal aliens a green card that will displace those American workers forever.
“This is legislation for the people of Mexico, not the United States.”
Across the street from the school, flanked by dozens of police and security officers, Marco Ochoa said he wanted to hear specifics from Obama about how he will reform the immigration system. “It’s been four years and still no immigration reform,” he said. “The politicians have been talking and fighting, but we want to hear something real.”
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Nineteen-year-old Angel Pena, a Nevada security guard, said it’s clear that the job of passing immigration legislation is not just up to the president, but the Congress, “and unfortunately, a lot of them are Republicans.”
“I don’t want the president to be nice just to pacify his political enemies on this issue,” Pena said. “I want him to be frank, to tell the nation this is the way things are and this is what must be done. This issue is too important for political niceties. Tell it like it is and then help the Congress get to work on a solution.”
Murphy of the ACLU said she was glad the president’s speech did not stress the need for more border enforcement, which she said had “grown exponentially over the last decade. If you lined up all the U.S. Border Patrol officers side by side, they could see each other from San Diego to Brownsville, [Texas],” she said.
Several leaders expressed concern over a part of the president’s plan that would establish an employment verification system for undocumented workers on their path to citizenship.
“This is going to affect 100 million workers,” Murphy said. “That database risks ID theft and invasions of privacy. We also fear discriminatory employment practices.”
Others saw hope in the speech.
“We’re in a time where we need to hang in there,” said Minerva Carcano, Los Angeles bishop of the United Methodist Church. “We’re saying to the president that we support him and we’re saying to Congress that we are committed to comprehensive immigration reform. But as the president said, if Congress can’t do it, he’s ready to step in.”
Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union, said the mere fact that Obama was making the issue a priority in his second term spoke to the growing strength of the nation’s Latino voters.
“It was just a few months ago that we saw a record turnout all across the nation, and now you can see the results of the involvement of the immigrant community in the recent elections,” he said. “Clearly the president has recognized that. Both Democrats and Republicans recognize the growth of the Latino community.”