Fact Check

Did Obama Say in 2009 We 'Can't Have Half a Million People Pouring' Over Border?

The then-president was calling for a “comprehensive approach” to handling immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Published March 11, 2024

 (Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons)
Image courtesy of Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons
During a speech in 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama said, "We can't have half a million people pouring over the border [...].”

Obama was calling for a “comprehensive” approach to immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing for strengthening the border as well as taking a humane approach with migrants who already resided in the U.S.

On March 10, 2024, an archival video of former U.S. President Barack Obama speaking on immigration issues, purportedly from 2009, went viral. The captions highlighted Obama's words, "We can't have half a million people pouring over the border." 

The video was shared by Elon Musk and more. One user on X said, "About 7 years later these same positions were considered racist and xenophobic by Democrats." 

(Screenshot via X)

Obama did indeed say the above words. While the caption focuses on him talking about the "half a million people pouring over the border," Obama did have more to add. He said new migrants would have to learn English and would have to "earn" their citizenship, adding that the government has to "deal" with current undocumented immigrants in a "humane fashion." We thus rate this claim as a "Correct Attribution."

In the video, Obama can be overheard saying the following (emphasis, ours): 

So this is not going to be a free ride. It's not going to be some instant amnesty. What's going to happen is you are going to pay a significant fine. You are going to learn English. You are going to -- you are going to go to the back of the line so that you don't get ahead of somebody who was in Mexico City applying legally. But after you've done these things over a certain period of time you can earn your citizenship, so that it's not -- it's not something that is guaranteed or automatic. You've got to earn it. But over time you give people an opportunity.

Now, it only works though if you do all the pieces. I think the American people, they appreciate and believe in immigration. But they can't have a situation where you just have half a million people pouring over the border without any kind of mechanism to control it. So we've got to deal with that at the same time as we deal in a humane fashion with folks who are putting down roots here, have become our neighbors, have become our friends, they may have children who are U.S. citizens. That's the kind of comprehensive approach that we have to take. 

The full transcript for the speech can be found in the Obama White House archives online. He made those remarks on March 18, 2009, at a town hall. The full video can be found on The Obama White House's YouTube page below (the moment occurs around the 39-minute mark):

We should note that the Obama administration deported more than 2.4 million people, nearly as many as his two predecessors combined. However, many advocates of his policies note that he helped create protections for around 730,000 undocumented Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children. 


"Immigration Stands as Obama's Most Glaring Failure." PBS NewsHour, 4 July 2016, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/immigration-stands-as-obamas-most-glaring-failure. Accessed 11 March 2024.

"Remarks of the President at Costa Mesa Town Hall." Whitehouse.Gov, 18 Mar. 2009, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-costa-mesa-town-hall. Accessed 11 March 2024.

"Town Hall in Costa Mesa, CA." Obama White House, March 2009. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6qMFx_QBqI. Accessed 11 March 2024.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.