As President Barack Obama met with Caribbean leaders in Jamaica Thursday, April 9, here in the U.S. Diaspora, I hoped that at least CARICOM leaders would have the good sense to raise the issue of immigration with the president, especially because Caribbean-American Rep. Yvette Clarke was the second person stepping off Air Force One behind Obama April 8 in her mother’s homeland of Jamaica, sending a strong message that the Caribbean Diaspora was in the house.
But so much for hoping Caribbean leaders would tackle the president on the hot-button issue of immigration. Thankfully, there was Lisandra Rickards, a former Diaspora resident and program manager with the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica, who was among the lucky 350 in attendance at the town hall forum at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.
While Rickards claimed a lot has been said of the president’s immigration policy for undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the U.S., she wanted to know more about “hopeful families that are seeking a legal pathway for immigration into the U.S. but are finding seven- to 10-year delays before they even can get to apply.”
This question undoubtedly made Obama take notice, especially because moments earlier, Rickards had told him she had once lived in Chicago and had also dated his former private chef during her college days.
Of all the questions he was asked, the president commented, “That’s a great question.”
He then went on to pay tribute to the Caribbean region for contributing to the remarkable progress that the United States has made over the past two centuries through its immigrants. (Way to go, Caribbean Diaspora! Take that, CARICOM!) Seemingly happy to hone in on an issue that has now become a political tug-of-war among Republican governors in red states and the federal government, Obama got in the zone.
“My goal during the course of my presidency has been to make sure we continue to be a nation of immigrants as well as a nation of laws, and that we’re attracting talent from all around the world,” he began. “Part of what makes us special is you walk in Brooklyn and there are folks from everywhere. But they’re all striving, they’re all talented, they’re all trying to make their dreams come true. And that is what gives us the energy and the strength to be able to accomplish everything we’ve accomplished.”
Then he got to the real meat of the answer. “So we need to fix what is, right now, a broken immigration system,” said the president. “Part of it is dealing with those who are undocumented but who have been living there a long time, are part of the community, providing them with a pathway in which they have to earn a legal status, but recognizing that they’re there and we’re not going to be separating out families. That’s not who we are. That’s not true to our values. And ultimately, it’s not good for our economy.”
Recognizing perhaps that he had veered off the question, Obama added, “You are absolutely right that part of the reason that some people take the illegal route is because we make the legal route so difficult. And so we’re trying to identify ways to streamline that process. Now, I have to be honest, a lot of people want to come to America. So unless we just had no borders, there’s always going to be a wait. There’s always going to be background checks. There’s always going to be some prioritization in terms of who’s admitted and who’s not.”
Still, he admitted that the U.S. legal immigration system can be “less burdensome.”
Then, taking a shot from Jamaica at Republicans in Congress, the president stressed, “Some of those changes we wanted to make were in the legislation that was proposed and passed the United States Senate. I think there is still the opportunity to get that done before my presidency is over, but it does require the Republican Party to engage with me in a more serious effort and to put aside the politics.”
Good for you, Lisette! Great going, Mr. President!
Now to use your words and send the message louder to John Boehner and company—how about some Jamaican patois to close it out? That’s wah gwaan massive! And Mr. Boehner, you can ask your son-in-law to translate.
The writer is CMO of Hard Beat Communications, which owns the brands News Americas Now, CaribPR Wire and Invest Caribbean Now.