Jan. 30, 2013— -- LAS VEGAS -- What's at stake is President Barack Obama's legacy.
Will the country's first minority president be remembered for deporting 1.5 million people, a vast majority of them Latinos--the nation's fastest-growing group? Or will Obama, the son of a woman from Kansas and a foreign student from Kenya, whose improbable rise to the White House was ushered by an emerging, minority-majority electoral coalition--Latinos, Asians and blacks voting with whites--be remembered for granting citizenship to 11 million new Americans?
Judging by his forceful speech yesterday, the answer is definitely the latter.
"I'm here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform," Obama said to cheers and standing ovations at a packed high school gymnasium. At least four times he said, "Now's the time."
It did not bear repeating.
Everything is moving in the right direction, and in record speed, giving a case of whiplash to even the most veteran and cynical of immigration advocates. It seems that congressional leaders are holding on to what was once a third rail in American politics. In an interview with ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, John McCain, a crucial and, at times, unreliable ally, said he now backs not only the DREAM Act, but also a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. (As early as three years ago, the Arizona senator called such a pathway "amnesty.") The following day, a group of senators (the "Gang of Eight," as they have been coined) offered an imperfect and enforcement-heavy but (here's the key word) bipartisan blueprint, laying out its principles for a workable immigration bill. Not to be left out, a group of House Republicans said on the same day that they too have a bill in the works.
If there were any doubts that the president viewed immigration as the top legislative priority of his second term, those were laid to rest when he said yesterday: "And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away."
Obama, as only a lame-duck president can, is staking his claim and going for the history books. And just as important as putting pressure on a bitterly polarized and often paralyzed Congress, Obama is framing the issue economically and culturally. He reminded us that, in recent years, one in four technology startups in America were created by immigrants, as were one in four new small businesses. He implored Americans to honor our country's rich history of immigration and to remember that our country is in constant evolution, from the Pilgrims, the Irish, and Eastern Europeans, to the Asians and Latinos.
In the speech's single most memorable line, this president who is still considered by some as "the other," viewed as a foreigner in a country that twice elected him to the White House, eloquently said: "Before they were 'us,' they were 'them.'"
Last week, the president gave the most inclusive inaugural address in the history of the American presidency, connecting the dots between Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall.
This week, Obama made it clear that, instead of being remembered as the Deporter-in-Chief within the immigrant rights community, signing a broad, fair, humane immigration bill into law--making "others" into "Americans"--will be a part of his inclusive legacy.
As one of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants, I am hopeful.
Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist and the founder of Define American, which seeks to elevate how we talk about immigration.