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State of the Union 2013: Reaction is mixed to Obama's immigration proposals

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As expected, President Barack Obama promoted his immigration reform ideas in Tuesday night's State of the Union address to Congress, and the response to them depended on the way he framed the issue.

References to border security, the "back of the line" and highly skilled worker visas didn't generate much excitement. At the same time, the speech made comprehensive immigration reform a priority this year, a major shift compared with a year ago, when Obama mentioned it only in passing.

In case you missed any of it, here is the immigration portion of last night's speech, and a few of the reactions.

First, the speech:

Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.

And some reactions, from the positive to the not-so-much.

The review in the Washington Post's PostPartisan blog was fairly glowing on the immigration front, noting Obama's nods to bipartisan cooperation:

"The most significant development of the night: President Obama’s decision not to use the immigration issue as a partisan wedge. The general principles he outlined –- tightened border security, earned citizenship, fixing the legal immigration system –- are broadly consistent with the approach of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and the rest of the Gang of Eight in the Senate.

"...Tonight, he gave Congress the flexibility — and Republicans the cover — to achieve it. By rejecting a wedge issue, he may have found a legacy."

The Daily Beast's John Avlon parsed the president's word choices and noted his decision to stay clear of GOP-alienating policy prescriptions:

"Listen carefully to the president’s language: 'Real reform means strong border security … Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship—a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.'

"This is self-consciously Republican rhetoric. 'Learn English' and 'going to the back of the line' are not typical liberal applause lines."

Some of the strongest critics of the president's words on immigration reform last night? Not Republicans. Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin watched the speech with a roomful of immigrant workers — day laborers, domestic workers, hotel employees — many of them undocumented. Some things they liked, others made them angry:

"Obama received cheers and whoops as he announced that 'the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.' But they quickly turned to boos, hisses, and even a 'Shame on you!' as he pivoted to tougher border security.

"There were more discontented murmurs as he said undocumented immigrants need to go 'to the back of the line' behind legal immigrants to obtain a green card, a system many fear may be too hopelessly damaged to ever make them permanent residents."

With waits for immigrant visas that can exceed 20 years for those who do it legally, the back of that line is a faraway place. And critics of more border security, a cornerstone of the bipartisan Senate plan - which makes a path to citizenship contingent on security goals - argue that the border is already as secure as it's ever been.

Interestingly, the president began the immigration portion of his  speech yesterday much as he did a year ago. Back then he only mentioned legalizing young undocumented immigrants "who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country."

"Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship; I will sign it right away," Obama said then.

So far there is no comprehensive bill for Obama to sign, but one could be introduced in the not-too-distant future. In that sense, what a difference a year makes.

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