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Editorial: Fixing immigration would help us all

President Barack Obamdelivers his State Uniaddress Capitol Hill WashingtTuesday Jan. 28 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Updated: March 3, 2014 3:20PM

From the audience Tuesday, Chicago issued a challenge to President Obama and Congress: Fix our broken immigration laws now.

Obama’s State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress was attended by five Chicagoans — guests of five Chicago congressmen — who have pushed for immigration reform or, more to the point, been punished by the current dysfunctional system. Among them was Estefania Garcia, a guest of Rep. Brad Schneider. Garcia was born in Mexico, brought to the United States as a small child, graduated last year from Lake Forest College and works now for a Lake County social service agency — all the while wondering if and when she might be deported.

Of all the challenges facing our nation that Obama discussed — of all the initiatives he pushed to strengthen a fragile economy — few if any are more pressing than immigration reform, especially for a big city like Chicago that thrives on the unfettered energy of immigrants. And no other issue stands a better chance — if still a slim one — for productive bipartisan action.

For Obama, comprehensive immigration reform would be the last and greatest accomplishment of his presidency. For Republicans in Congress, getting behind immigration reform could broaden the party’s ever-narrowing national appeal, especially among Hispanic Americans.

Obama acknowledged that partnering up with Congress, where Republican hard-liners hold sway in the House, will be tougher than ever in this election year. The president said he will use his executive powers “wherever and whenever” to achieve his ends — and then urge Congress to do more.

“America does not stand still and neither will I,” Obama said, an applause line that predictably brought Democratic legislators to their feet while Republicans sat.

But the very modesty of the president’s proposals revealed the limits of what a president can do when he goes it alone.

Obama announced executive action to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts, but only Congress can raise the federal minimum wage for all American workers. He said he would help the long-term unemployed find work and reform job-training programs, but only Congress can extend long-term unemployment benefits.

All the more reason, then, for the president to seize on the not entirely unrealistic possibility that Democrats and Republicans might finally be able to find common ground on immigration reform. The Senate did just that last June, though Republicans killed the deal in the House.

Why then did the president devote but a single paragraph in a long speech to immigration reform? Our hope is that this reflects a reluctance to politicize the issue, not a lack of commitment.

“If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said. “Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent and contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

Even before the president’s speech, Republican leaders, urged on by business groups, signaled new interest in striking a bargain, leaking to the media on Monday a statement of GOP principles on immigration reform. The principles include a path to legal status for many of the 11 million adults living in the United States illegally, and offer a path to actual citizenship for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as young children.

That framework may go nowhere, done in by Democrats who insist on the possibility of citizenship across the board, or done in by other Republicans who sneer at “legal status” as a form of “amnesty.” But never have the self-interests of the two parties appeared more in sync.

Obama called for “a year of action,” which frankly sounds like wishful thinking, except, just perhaps, on one enormously difficult but crucial front: immigration reform.

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