MISSION, September 16 - Some Congressional Democrats are contemplating a compromise on immigration reform that would put undocumented immigrants on a path to legalization but not, directly, citizenship.
Under the plan, the 11 or 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. could come out of the shadows and become legal residents, allowing them to work legally and travel freely. They would not be able to apply for citizenship. To become a citizen, they would have to wait and go through the normal process that legal residents have to follow.
One of the Democrats looking at the “compromise,” is U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. At a recent news conference held jointly with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in Mission, Cuellar said he has set up a meeting with U.S. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to discuss the residency/citizenship issue. Goodlatte has said his committee will take a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, working on a series of small bills, rather than create a comprehensive bill like the U.S. Senate did.
“I support a comprehensive bill, but if we do it piecemeal and do not call it pathway but call it taking them (undocumented immigrants) out of the shadows and giving them legalization, I can support that. I have got to be flexible,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar said he does not support amnesty for undocumented immigrants. “What I do support is taking these people out of the shadows. I want to know who those people are,” he said.
Asked if there would be anyway for undocumented immigrants that become legal to apply for citizenship in the future, Cuellar answered in the affirmative. “At some time in the future, yes. We have to legalize these folks first. There are always things in the law that can allow these people to become citizens. You let them become a legal resident first. The system will allow them to get to that point (citizenship) eventually.”
Cuellar said he hopes U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, will also attend the meeting with Goodlatte. Gutierrez has been the Democrat immigrant rights groups look to on the issue. Cuellar said there will have to be give and take from Democrats and Republicans alike if immigration reform is to pass in the House. He said a bipartisan approach is called for because there are about 65 to 70 Tea Party Republicans in the House who will try to block
“I asked if I could sit down (with Goodlatte) and see if there is any way we can salvage this. Right now, the clock, the calendar, is the biggest enemy of immigration reform. If we do not pass it now, it is going to be hard to do anything before 2017. I hope we can get both sides together,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar said he would support a piecemeal approach “as long as we accomplish everything.” In addition to the question of what to do with the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants, there is likely to be legislation in the House addressing border security, a guest worker program, and updating the e-verify laws to ensure only those permitted to work are doing so.
“The most difficult part is what to do about the 11 or 12 million undocumented persons. I have told my friends, we are not doing amnesty and that if we do not do something about those 11 or 12 million you are going to give them a de facto amnesty because they stay here,” Cuellar said.
“I hope that, at the very least, we bring them out of the shadows so we know who they are. I will be the first to say, if they have a criminal record, kick them out, deport them. But the rest of the people who are here, who have laid down roots here, let’s have a sensible way of doing this.”
Cuellar also discussed the prospects for immigration reform at an immigration forum in Port Isabel recently. Other members of Congress at the forum were Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, Gene Green, D-Houston, Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville.
Cuellar said few Congressional Republicans have an electoral incentive to pass immigration reform because very few of them represent districts with a high Latino population. He said the chances of passing such legislation is diminished because of an unwritten rule that says the only House bills that will be taken up by the leadership are those that garner the support of a majority of the ruling majority.
“Look at what happened to Congressman John Carter, a good friend of mine. He had a town hall meeting in his constituency and was attacked by Tea Party folks for supporting a pathway to citizenship. He is trying to do the right thing,” Cuellar said. Carter is a Republican from Round Rock, Texas.
At the immigration reform forum, Cuellar discussed a possible approach by Goodlatte. “What he (Goodlatte) said was very, very interesting. He said, I do not support a pathway but I think there is a way. I do not know if they (Republicans) will let him get to that point, which is take them out of the shadows, we are not using the word ‘pathway,’ become legalized, where they can work and travel, and then the system can do its thing. It’s a compromise,” Cuellar said.
“I have talked to Luis (Gutierrez). If you talk about a pathway to citizenship the Republican leadership is going to say no, N, O, no. We have to get to a conference committee. Let’s see what he (Goodlatte) comes up with. They control what is on the calendar.”
La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), which works to empower tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in colonias in Hidalgo County, held a news conference on immigration reform on Monday. Group members are participating in a 40-day fast in support of a pathway to citizenship and against further militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Asked what she thought of a pathway to legalization, rather than a pathway to citizenship, Tania Chavez, LUPE’s special projects coordinator, said: “It all depends on what they mean by a path to legalization. With the amnesty under President Reagan, undocumented immigrants were legalized and they then had a pathway to U.S. citizenship. If that is the same thing then we welcome that. But, if we block absolutely a path to citizenship in the future, we cannot support that. We do not want to create second class citizens,” Chavez said.
“If the idea is to create a permanent underclass - that is not what we want. It is not a compromise we can support. We all for legalizing them, giving them permanent legal residency, and after a few years be able to acquire their citizenship, like everybody else does in the immigration system.”
Chavez said under the current system, legal residents have to wait five years before they can apply to become citizens. That wait is only three years if an immigrant’s spouse petitions. She said the same timeframe should be in place for undocumented immigrants under new immigration laws.
“If the compromise is legislation first and then, years down the road, a path to citizenship, by all means but if there is absolutely no way to get your citizenship, then no, that is not we want,” Chavez added. “My fear is that there will be a tiny little clause that says, after legalization you will never be able to get your citizenship. That is my fear. We need to be careful with the way the bill is worded.”