Obama on Immigrants: ‘It's Not Like Everybody on Ellis Island Had Their Papers Straight’

Jason Le Miere

President Barack Obama returned to public life Monday and rejoined the debate over immigration, stating, “It's not like everybody on Ellis Island had their papers straight.”

In his first public remarks since Donald Trump took over the presidency, Obama was careful not to mention his successor by name, focusing instead on civic engagement and young leaders, six of whom joined him on stage at the University of Chicago. But he did weigh in on one of the most controversial policy areas of Trump’s presidency.

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“It’s not like everybody on Ellis Island had their papers straight,” he said to a crowd of 300 students. “The history of our immigration has always been a little bit haphazard.”

Obama was responding to a question from one of the invited guests on stage who had found it difficult to get day laborers to speak for a survey following November’s election victory for Trump. The Republican has taken a tough stance on immigration, pushing ahead with his campaign promise to build a wall along the Mexico border and threatening to cut federal aid to so-called “sanctuary cities” who fail to cooperate with immigration authorities.

obama chicago speech

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with youth leaders at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago to discuss strategies for community organization and civic engagement in Chicago, Illinois, April 24, 2017 Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

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Returning to a central theme of the talk, Obama said it was wrong to castigate those who support Trump’s policies and that greater understanding of the issue was needed on both sides.

“It’s important for those who support, like I do, immigration reform and pathways to citizenship for folks who are here not to assume that anybody has problems with the immigration system is automatically racist,” he said. “For those who are concerned about undocumented workers coming in, it’s important for them to appreciate the degree to which overwhelmingly these are families who are just looking for a better life for their children.”

That was as close as Obama got to confronting Trump’s policies other than a quip as he was introduced, asking “what’s been going on while I’ve been gone” to laughs from the audience.

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He also outlined what he believes to be the biggest challenges of the day, explaining his hope that creating a generation of young leaders can yet lead to solutions.

“The one thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is, yes we confront a whole lot of challenges from economic inequality and lack of opportunity to a criminal justice system that is too often skewed in ways that are unproductive, to climate change to issues related to violence, all of those challenges are serious, they’re daunting but not insoluble.”

Since leaving the White House, Obama has shied away from challenging Trump, other than a statement defending the Affordable Care Act on its seventh anniversary last month. Instead, the 44th president has been spotted vacationing on islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, while he also has been working on his memoir and plans for his presidential library in Chicago.

His remarks in Chicago were just the start of his return to the public arena. In the coming weeks, he will receive a “Profile in Courage” award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston and at the end of May will appear alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to give a speech.

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