Just days before Congress began debating sweeping proposals to reform the country’s immigration policies, one of the key congressional architects of the plans appeared with two Colorado Democratic lawmakers to discuss the issue.
More than 350 packed Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church on Saturday afternoon at a community forum sponsored by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette that also included U.S. Reps. Jared Polis and Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force.
“Politicians realize that the voters want comprehensive immigration reform,” DeGette said after the lawmakers listened to hours of testimony, some delivered through interpreters. “There’s real movement on this, we feel we can do it this year.”
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee — Gutiérrez sits on the panel — began hearings on immigration reform. During the week prominent Republicans expressed a willingness to bend on longstanding disputes between the parties over the issue, including creating a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.
DeGette argued against one potential sticking-point, Republican proposals to split immigration legislation into pieces rather than tackle it in one comprehensive bill.
“We have to cover all of the issues we heard today in the room. We can’t just do one thing and solve the problem. As well as securing the borders, you’ve got to give people a path to freedom, you’ve got to help families where some family members are citizens and some are not, you’ve got to help same-sex couples get their spouses or their partners here. It really has to be comprehensive,” DeGette said at the forum.
“We’re asking for over-reaching, general immigration reform,” said a man, through an interpreter. “Not just for the people who are here. It’s the problem of sons, of children, of wives, of mothers, of company owners.” He continued, invoking President John F. Kennedy: “We do not come here to ask what our country can do for us, but what we can do for this country.”
In testimony that brought tears to the eyes of the lawmakers and many in the audience, a woman spoke in Spanish about her husband’s deportation after the couple had raised a child in Colorado. Soon after, as she was overcome with physical ailments, she went to a doctor who told her he couldn’t diagnose anything wrong with her.
“My heart hurts,” she said she told him.
Her husband has since returned but the couple lives in fear, she said. “Now we’re worried every time we go out that he will be deported,” she lamented, describing the violence and instability wracking their native Mexico. “It scares me to even think about going back there for us to live.”
Concluding, she sounded notes similar to those spoken by a dozen others who testified: “We have dreams, we have dreams like I’m sure you all have. We do not wish any harm or hurt to the country, we just want to help the country get ahead.”
Speaking about one man who described pursing a college degree and made a plea to make “our border” more secure, Polis said the man’s language sums up the predicament: “He views himself, rightfully so, as an American. He is viewed by his peers as an American. He is viewed by his classmates and his co-workers as an American. It’s time for him to be viewed by the law as an American.”
Later, Polis added, “It’s time to replace our broken immigration system with one that works, one that makes our country stronger, one that promotes the rule of law, one that leads to economic growth and one that helps keep families — the backbone of society — together.”
“Look,” said Gutiérrez after the forum, “they’re Americans in everything but a piece of paper. This is the country they love, this is the country that they cherish, this is the country that’s educated them, and now it’s time to give them that piece of paper so they can be integrated fully into the country that they love.”
He also predicted that Democrats would be able to sway enough Republicans in the House — as many as 20 percent of the GOP lawmakers will have to vote with Democrats in order to pass legislation, since not all Democrats are on board — if only for political reasons.
The American people, Gutiérrez said, “spoke clearly and abundantly on Nov. 6.” The message delivered by votes, he suggested, hasn’t been state more eloquently by anyone than U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was “for comprehensive immigration reform before he decided it wasn’t time for comprehensive reform.”
McCain, Gutiérrez paraphrased, summed it up thus: “‘I’m here because of politics. We lost the election. I want Latinos, and I want those who believe in good immigration policies to hear me. I want to have a chance to get their vote.’ I think that’s the way democracy ought to work.”
He threw down a gauntlet for Republicans, who suffered bruising losses at the polls fueled in part by a growing Hispanic vote, which sided with Democrats by historic margins.
“If you treat immigrants poorly, if you treat immigrants harshly, if you treat them unfairly, then we will not listen to you, come Election Day,” Gutiérrez said. “Every year, 500,000 Latinos turn 18 — and I know you’re asking yourself, all American citizens. So it is time to heed the call. So if not for the right reason, then do it for the political reason.”
Another Colorado Democrat, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, is at the center of a bipartisan reform proposal that emerged a week earlier from a group of senators, dubbed the Gang of Eight. The broad outline includes a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living within U.S. borders, calls for stronger border security and a more effective system for businesses to verify employment eligibility. The framework echoes a bipartisan document that Bennet unveiled in December alongside prominent state Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who ran against Bennet in the 2010 election.
Other Colorado Republicans are taking a more wait-and-see approach to the proposals.
U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, said he welcomes the debate and anticipates a bipartisan solution.
“I am glad that our country is starting to have a serious conversation about how to repair our broken immigration system — it is long overdue,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “I have always believed this issue must be addressed in a bipartisan way, and I look forward to fully reviewing all proposals to make sure they align with the values of the people of Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.”
Disagreeing with the Democratic approach that a single package is necessary, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said he nonetheless looks forward to working on the problem.
“The House is likely to consider a series of targeted reform bills for improving our nation’s immigration policies. That makes more sense to me than trying to address the issue in a single comprehensive bill. I look for-ward to studying the various bills and proposals as they come forward in the House,” Lamborn told The Statesman.
DeGette pointed to the many interlocking pieces of the puzzle, arguing that the problems can’t be solved piecemeal. “We need to have the resources to enforce the comprehensive bill when we pass it so that people won’t have to wait for 20 years to get their legal status,” she said.
Gutiérrez said that a comprehensive immigration reform policy will do more than solve myriad family difficulties, it will benefit the country’s economy.
“The economic activity that will be created by 11 million people completely integrating themselves into American society is mind-boggling. We are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars,” he said, adding, “What happens when you lift the uncertainty among 11 million people?”