"We must act," declared President Barack Obama in his second inaugural address. "We cannot afford to delay."
On a diverse stage that reflected the legacy of our country's social movements for gay, women, and civil rights, the president spoke about the nation's unfinished journey towards greater equality. Making reference to the voices of past civil rights leaders, the president forcefully spoke to meet the nation's challenges, especially our duty to advance equality for gays, women, and immigrants.
The president is absolutely right. He cannot afford to delay, specifically in addressing the continued marginalization, scapegoating, and criminalization of immigrants. President Obama must lead by example. The roadmap to citizenship for immigrants begins with a moratorium on deportations. If the president is serious about turning the principle of equality into reality, he must begin here.
Presently, the Obama administration deports an average of 12,000 morepeople per month than President Bush did. In his first term, the president deported an astonishing 1.4 million people. It's a problem that he recognized, but failed to take responsibility for, in his speech. When he urged that we find ways to "welcome" rather than "expel" immigrants, it was unclear whom he was addressing.
In fact, that short sentence was nearly all he said about immigration in his entire speech. It raised an ongoing question about the president's leadership on the issue: when does rhetoric become reality? How serious is President Obama about immigration reform, now that he is not running for office but rather for his place in history?
When President Obama won re-election – in large part due to the record number of Latinos who voted for him – he renewed his promise for federal immigration reform, singling it out as the top priority for the upcoming legislative session. Though federal legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented residents is long overdue, serious obstacles stand in the way, including an obstructionist Congress and the president's growing list of other legislative priorities.
In his second term, Obama could implement a number of administrative policies even as Congress takes up federal immigration reform. The president last year proved he could use his executive powers when he suspended the deportations of undocumented youth and allowed them to apply for work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
A sign of his renewed commitment to immigration reform would be the expansion of this program to cover undocumented adults. Obama could also administratively terminate the "secure communities" program, a controversial deportation policy that became emblematic of the president's broken promise to legalize undocumented immigrants.
The road to immigration reform begins with President Obama. He needs to distance himself from a disappointing first term that amplified immigrants' suffering and criminalization. He has the power and moral imperative to be the first to respond to his own call to action. It's time the president's policies on immigration reflect the virtues of democracy, freedom, and equality he spoke of at his second inauguration.
For too long, the president's immigration platform has been at odds with itself – on the one hand, making the case for inclusion by urging Congress to grant immigrants full political rights; on the other, carrying out exclusionary, punitive policies and record levels of deportations.
I admit I felt conflicted during today's inaugural ceremony. Watching the stage, I was taken aback by the diversity displayed: an almost surreal portrait of progress and equality. I beamed while watching supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice-President Biden; I was thrilled to hear gay, Latino poet Richard Blanco's ode to working-class people; and my jaw nearly dropped when I heard the Reverend Luis Leon partially recite the benediction in Spanish. And, of course, the historic significance of hearing our African-American president speak on Dr Martin Luther King's birthday was not lost.
Yet, as much as I felt inspired and proud of our country's long history of struggling for greater equality and freedom on Monday, I was reminded that these social movements did not bring about change through blind political obedience. They held their friends and foes accountable, and to borrow the president's own words, they demanded action.
President Obama, that begins with you.