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Obama Versus Rubio on Immigration Reform

U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013 (REUTERS/Charles Dharapa).

What was clear last night from President Obama’s State of the Union Address and Senator Rubio’s Republican response was that Washington agrees that immigration reform makes economic sense. Immigrants were framed as important contributors to economic growth in both speeches, with Obama highlighting the need to “attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy,” and Rubio’s immigration story of inheriting “the real opportunity to accomplish [his] dreams” from his parents’ journey.

Both Obama and Rubio mentioned the same three basic elements of comprehensive immigration reform in their speeches: (1) strong border security, (2) dealing with undocumented workers, and (3) fixing the legal immigration system.  But there were subtle differences that reflect potential clashes between the parties:

  • No mention of “comprehensive” reform by Rubio, whereas Obama used the word for immigration reform, tax reform, and trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnerships
  • Rubio did not mention “earned citizenship” for unauthorized immigrants

Obama is continuing to signal that he wants a holistic overhaul of all elements of immigration policy together in one bill and a path to earned citizenship for all immigrants. On the other hand, Rubio is open to a more piecemeal approach and is avoiding the controversy within his own party of whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be allowed only legal residency without a path to citizenship. Dodging these terms might be an indication that Rubio has yet to resolve these issues with his party.

As immigration reform moves forward, both Obama and Rubio will eventually have to convince Americans that reform does not mean more spending. As Obama clearly stated at the beginning of his speech, “nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.”  This means that immigration reform must build mechanisms to ensure that reform is funded by a pool of visa fees, penalty fees, and any other fee paid by immigrants or employers.

View more State of the Union 2013 responses »
See also our immigration resources page »