U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

LAREDO, Texas – I am the oldest of eight children, and my parents used to take me out to the fields — las piscas — to be with them, as they worked in the hot sun.

Some of the earliest photos of me as a young child are black-and-whites together with my parents in the fields.

My father was a migrant worker from Guerrero, Mexico, who came to America not for handouts, but to work. He worked as a laborer when he met my mother.

My father and mother only reached a second and sixth grade level of education, respectively, but they instilled in their children a powerful sense of family, a strong work ethic, and the promise that if we worked hard, got an education, and played by the rules, our level of achievement would be limited only by our effort.

I worked my way through college and have earned five degrees. I served my community as state representative, Texas secretary of State and now in the U.S. Congress.

Our family is like millions of immigrant families in the United States today: They come here, work very hard and instill in their children the values and ethics that have defined our country since its founding.

Some studies show that comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship would increase the nation’s gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Between 1990 and 2005, immigrants started 25 percent of the highest-growth companies in the United States. And 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies — which includes Google, AT&T and McDonald’s — were started by immigrants or their children.

The myth that immigrants are here to draw from our resources or take more than they give is just that, a myth.

As a congressman representing more than 300 miles of the Texas-Mexico border, I know personally the dynamism of trade and immigration. My hometown of Laredo is the largest inland port in the United States and accounts for almost 45 percent of the more than $500 billion trade in goods and services between the U.S. and Mexico every year.

We must develop legislation that includes a viable border security plan that limits the influx of undocumented immigrants and visa overstays; a guest worker plan that provide an avenue for farm workers and high-skilled employees to benefit our economy; and legalization for the 11 million to 12 million immigrants currently living in the shadows.

The time for reform is now, and our greatest enemy in achieving real reform is time.

In an ideal world, I would like the House to take up a comprehensive immigration reform bill like the Senate did, but the Republican leadership has decided to address immigration reform in a piecemeal manner.

I am encouraged by the meetings I have had with both Democratic and Republican colleagues who expressed their support for legislation that addresses immigration, border security and Dreamers. But the clock is ticking.

Once we enter 2014, all the pressures of campaign season will descend upon Congress. And soon after, we will find ourselves in the midst of the 2016 presidential race. If we do not take action on immigration reform now, I am afraid that it will not be until 2017 that we revisit this issue that Americans agree is important and urgent.

We cannot let this moment pass. There is too much at stake for the American economy and the future of our country as global leader.

Regardless of where they came from, the millions of immigrant families across the country want what every American wants for themselves and their children: a chance at the American Dream.

This is the chance I had, and it is the value that lies at the heart of the American character. It is the value that will build our future.

Henry Cuellar is member of Congress for District 28 in Congress. A Democrat who hails from Laredo, Cuellar sits on the House Appropriations Committee. The above op-ed first appeared in The Hill newspaper.