President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, right, listen.

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

Highlighting a downturn in illegal border crossings, President Obama said in his state of the union address last night that the time has come for comprehensive immigration reform.

“The opponents of action are out of excuses,” Obama said. “We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.”

Border Patrol apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted to levels not seen since 1972 in the recently completed fiscal year — one of several metrics suggesting that the flow of illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico, has slowed.

If comprehensive immigration reform isn't possible, Obama urged Congress to at least provide relief for people brought here illegally as children so they can go to college and join the military; a concept known as the Dream Act.

“But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country,” Obama said. “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”

Speaking earlier about people who would benefit from such legislation, Obama said:

“Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else. That doesn’t make sense.”  

(Note: you can listen to this section of the speech in this link at the 23:35 mark.)

Obama has made no secret that he’s a strong proponent of the Dream Act-type legislation — he also advocated for it in 2011 state of the union address.

“Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens," said Obama at the 24:40 mark of the 2011 speech. "Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

"Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort. And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.”

Currently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys are doing a case-by-case review of about 300,000 pending deportations nationwide in search of people who warrant reprieves.

People who get relief will be chosen based on 19 factors listed in a June memo sent out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton. The list includes a person's length of time in the U.S.; if the person is pursuing an education; if the person or family members have served in the military; if the person has a spouse, child or parent who is a legal permanent resident; and if a person was brought illegally as a child;

No one group will be given categorical relief, the agency says. Reprieves will be determined case-by-case, and won't grant the people legal permanent residency, but rather temporary relief, the agency says.

The review is an effort to unburden the nation's overcrowded immigration courts and free up Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus on illegal immigrants with criminal convictions who pose a threat to communities.

In his 2010 state of the union speech, Obama did not mention the Dream Act and said only this about immigration and border issues:

“We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system -– to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.”

During his first speech to Congress as President on Feb. 24, 2009, he didn’t mention immigration or the border even once.

He has not mentioned Mexico, the ongoing Mexican drug war, or Latin America in any of his four state of the union speeches.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or