Last night President Obama laid out his vision of America. Remarkably, he did so by framing our future through the lens of history. As the President stated, “we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That is why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.”
His words took us back to an earlier moment in the American experience when our nation was faced with daunting challenges at home and abroad; a time when we met seemingly overwhelming challenges through the reaffirmation and celebration of America’s core values of faith, family, and hard work.
Our generation’s “Sputnik Moment,” as the President called it, demands that we meet the challenges of the 21st century though innovation, education, and rebuilding of America’s infrastructure. At the same time we must keep vigilant against the threats posed by those who would do us harm.
It is impossible to heed the words of President Obama without envisioning what a healthy immigration system would bring to our country. Indeed, the President himself included immigration reform as a key element in the “reinventing” of America, declaring he is “prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.”
Implicit in the State of the Union was the President’s recognition that years ago we met the challenge of Sputnik not by insulating ourselves from the world, but by opening America to the best and the brightest; to the invaluable talent from abroad who, as the President said, “can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.” Our ability to put Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969 was the result, in no small part, of an immigration system that attracted brilliant minds from abroad. People who shared the idea upon which the U.S. was founded and were prepared to sacrifice in order to build its future, culture and social fabric. And today, just as throughout history, our challenges can only be met through our collective celebration of creativity and new ideas born at home, and abroad.
So, an essential aspect of the challenge issued by the President Obama is the creation of a truly great immigration system. But building one, as the President pointed out, requires a serious bi-partisan effort to find solutions, and not engage in the politics of fear and divisiveness. I believe the President’s vision of a reinvigorated America necessarily includes an immigration policy founded on safety, fairness, and order; one that protects due process and rewards innovation, education, and redevelopment. As the President said, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”
The President was spot on when he declared that we should stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation. It makes no sense, as the President pointed out, to educate students from abroad in our colleges and universities only to turn around and send them home to compete against us.
Not only must we construct an immigration policy with a vision of America’s winning future, but we must ensure that government agencies implement it with the broadest possible interpretation of the law. We must prevent researchers, entrepreneurs, innovators and academics from being stymied by an unwieldy and often unfriendly bureaucracy.
Implicit also in the President’s message was the preservation of America’s core values of compassion, fairness and redemption. He spoke beautifully of the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who find themselves undocumented in the U.S. through no fault of their own. But who, nevertheless, have struggled against all odds to enrich this nation and pledge allegiance to our flag every day. The President’s vision of America can only be reached if we work to halt the steady stream of families ripped apart as a result of a lack of a rational immigration policy. And as we have seen over the past several months, the void created by the federal government’s failure to act has lead, in states like Arizona, to laws which force people to live in fear based upon the color of their skin and the misguided belief that the darker their tone, the more likely they are illegal. This is not the America any of us envision.
The challenge posed by President Obama is to renew our faith in America’s promise and the reality of the American Dream. And reaching that lofty goal necessarily means fashioning an immigration system worthy of the “shining city on a hill” described by President Ronald Reagan as “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity” where the doors are “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”