Immigration As Obama's Priority? Hispanic Caucus Hopes So

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President Obama's approval ratings are up since Osama bin Laden's death. Can Obama use this political capital to push his domestic agenda? He met with Congressional Hispanic Caucus members on Tuesday, and they are hoping immigration reform will become a priority. Host Michel Martin talks immigration with Democratic Rep. Charles Gonzalez, the chair of the Caucus.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, it's the fifth of May, Cinco de Mayo, but before you make plans for an afternoon of salsa and cerveza, we're going to give you a little history of the holiday, and then you can decide if it's the real deal or just another faux ethnic invention. That's coming up.

But before we head south of the border, we'd like to take a look at how the domestic politics of this country might be altered by recent events. President Obama has seen a slight improvement in his approval rating since he announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden late Sunday night. Now, some are wondering whether this will strengthen the president's hand in other areas. The president has, of course, called for more bipartisan cooperation, but the question is: to what end?

On Tuesday, President Obama met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. That was the third such meeting in as many weeks. The focus of these meetings was immigration reform. That's an issue that hasn't advanced very far during this administration, so far. So we wanted to check in with the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressman Charles Gonzalez. That's an all-Democratic caucus, and Mr. Gonzalez is a Democrat, representing the 20th District of Texas, which incorporates a large part of San Antonio.

And Mr. Gonzalez is with us now. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

Representative CHARLES GONZALEZ: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, this was the third meeting in three weeks with President Obama on Tuesday. What was the purpose of the meeting? Was the primary focus immigration reform?

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. On February 16th, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with senior advisors to the president, including his chief of staff, Bill Daley. And we delivered, basically, a proposal on what we thought the president might be able to do administratively while we wait for a legislative fix to what we always refer to as a broken immigration system. And so they had it on the table for a while. We were scheduled to meet around April 13th, and it was postponed, obviously, until May. And that was the subject of the meeting.

MARTIN: What do you think you can say to your Republican colleagues to get over this logjam?

GONZALEZ: Stop thinking of it in terms of the political capital that you may gain from it, and look at it basically as an economic issue. As a Democrat, I think it's very hard reaching many of the Republicans. I think the president recognizes that, also, and that's why he's been doing his own outreach to different groups that have pre-existing relationships with Republican leadership. And we're hoping that they would be the intermediaries to reaching many of the Republicans that are hesitant to even consider any reform at this point.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say to people who say this just isn't a priority right now? There was a piece in the Washington Post that quoted a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner - the Republican leader, of course - saying the speakers focused on creating jobs, cutting spending and lowering gas prices. The implication here is that this just is not a priority. What do you say to that?

GONZALEZ: I would say he needs to listen to the business community, and what would be historically Republican-leaning groups that are telling him it is a priority for the business communities. You know, they're up here lobbying all the time, and when they come up here, they always discuss immigration reform, because it impacts the way they do business. And we attempt to make that case, and hopefully they'll listen.

MARTIN: But how do you make that case, if I could press that point? I mean, the brunt of the argument here is at a time of low unemployment, then people look, often, to immigrants without proper authorization, let's say, to fill jobs in the economy that native-born Americans with more choices will not fill. But at a time of high unemployment, the argument is: Why should there be major concern around this particular population?

I mean, just setting aside, if I may, even - you know, it's hard to set aside, you know, the human issues and the family issues and all those other issues. Just from an economic standpoint: What is the argument for why this needs to be a priority right now?

GONZALEZ: Well, you know, the argument that somehow it impacts the jobs that would be available to those that are unemployed at the present time is a false one. The truth is, there are many jobs that, right now, are being filled by a work force that is not here legally. To say that there are Americans ready, willing and able to take those jobs, I'm sure in some instances that may be true, but I would say in large measure, that is not true.

Now, the business community agrees with us, and they're saying, look. You know, we are exposed to some sort of liability when we hire, and we want to take that off the table so that we don't have to be looking over our shoulder as we hire and such. So we're trying to improve that, as far as verification. But that still doesn't address what we really believe is something that's counterproductive to the economic well-being of this country. And I believe that the chambers of commerce, as well as every businessperson I talk to is out there and saying: We need to reform the system.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Congressman Charles Gonzalez. He's the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. We're talking about comprehensive immigration reform and his recent meeting with President Obama.

You'd mentioned earlier that part of the meeting with the president was to explore administrative ways you can achieve some of the goals that you haven't been able to achieve legislatively. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Are there some things that you think that the White House could be doing that they are not now doing?

GONZALEZ: Oh, no. Absolutely. And first and foremost, there was definitely an agreement reached that we're not asking the president to change the law administratively. It's got to be a legislative fix. But working within existing laws, he is given some discretion. And what we're asking for is a uniform application of how we treat, let's say, the dream kids. Those are children that didn't have anything to do with the decision to come into this country illegally. That was something that was done by their parents, and they continue to suffer. So we would just like some consistency and uniformity in the application of the immigration laws when it comes to the dream kids. We're not asking...

MARTIN: What are you saying - what are you saying, stop deporting kids who are in college, or - is that what you're saying?

GONZALEZ: Sure.

MARTIN: Even if they commit a minor crime, like a traffic violation and so forth, is that what you're saying?

GONZALEZ: Oh, absolutely. And this is the other thing. And we don't want to frustrate, and we're not asking the president to frustrate the priorities that he has established, using limited resources that we have available, to identify those illegal immigrants that are obviously here today that have a criminal record, or are arrested for a serious crime, then we need to identify them. We need to apprehend them, and we need to deport them. There is no disagreement there.

But what's happening now is you have a lot of resources being misdirected, and we're just asking, let's get refocused. Why are we punishing innocent children that have demonstrated that they're going to college. They want to join the armed services and such. It makes no sense. Again, you know, I think...

MARTIN: But what's the answer?

GONZALEZ: ...we're in agreement.

MARTIN: Mr. Gonzalez, but what's the answer? I mean, the president was reminded - he had a town hall meeting which was hosted by Jorge Ramos a couple of weeks ago, where he was asked this question, which is that your administration has deported more people than any previous administration - certainly than the prior administration, you know, already. And that includes people - young people who have been arrested for crimes like traffic violations. Why is that? What's his answer?

GONZALEZ: I think his answer is he's still trying to achieve the objective identifying what would be a criminal element in the illegal immigrant population. But in doing that, the net has been cast so wide that it is obviously bringing in a lot of people that were never supposed to be targeted. What we're saying is okay. If you're going to cast such a wide net, you've got to look at how you're doing that. Is there a better way of doing it?

But if you continue to do it, and you're bringing people into this system, then you still have to have priorities, and that's when you exercise your discretion. I don't - I have had more quotes from Republican leaders saying that they don't believe the dream kids should be deported. You know, we start off on common ground, that these kids should not be deported, whether you're Republican or Democrat.

I'm not saying all Republicans, but some real leaders. And I'm talking about Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas, Senator Cornyn, Senator Graham. We have Newt Gingrich. We have Jeb Bush. We have others. So I think: Why don't we start with where we agree and move forward? And that's the administration, that's the Democratic leaders, Republican leaders, and move forward. I think that's the answer.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, may I ask your reaction to the big news of the week, the big international news of the week, which also, of course, has profound domestic implications: the death of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces? He was found in Pakistan. Can I ask your reaction to this?

GONZALEZ: Well, it's, you know, this is going to be my personal opinion. It doesn't reflect the administration or Democratic leadership or anyone other than Charlie Gonzalez, and that is: one, what to expect from the Pakistanis. I think we need to understand their circumstances and to the extent that they're going to be helpful, should they've been as helpful and such. Look. We have an ongoing relationship that is vital with them, and we need to move forward accordingly.

Secondly, to all terrorists, you know, bin Laden was the target, but it's a lesson to all. The United States will not rest until we find you. We will apprehend you, we will try you, if necessary, we will kill you, because we know what you mean in the way of a threat to our security and welfare, and we're going to protect our people.

Lastly - and no one has really talked about it. We had so much emphasis in Iraq for so long, that I think we didn't have the resources being applied as they should have been in Afghanistan. Because of the drawdown in Iraq, I think we were able to put a whole lot more resources in Afghanistan, which have resulted in the taking care of bin Laden after all these years. But no one seems to be talking about that. But I think it's a direct result of being more focused and having our resources again directed where they count.

MARTIN: And before I let you go, on a completely different topic, today is Cinco de Mayo. Some people are really looking forward to this as an opportunity to, you know, celebrate, and some people are saying this is a completely bogus holiday that has nothing to do with Mexican history. So where are you on Cinco de Mayo - thumbs up, thumbs down?

GONZALEZ: Two thumbs up. One reason, it's actually my birthday.

MARTIN: Oh, happy birthday.

GONZALEZ: Well, thank you very much. I think, you know, my mother timed it perfectly.

MARTIN: She absolutely did. I hope you have a beautiful cupcake.

GONZALEZ: Thank you. But, of course, it's a shared experience in history and culture. They are our neighbor, and neighbors should be getting along and respecting the traditions and cultures of one another in the holidays and what is meaningful to another country. We have an investment in Mexico, and Mexico has an investment in us, and there's no reason why we shouldn't appreciate what might be an important day in their history.

MARTIN: All right. Well, any excuse to celebrate. And now we have another one, Mr. Gonzalez's birthday. Happy birthday, Mr. Gonzalez.

GONZALEZ: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Congressman Charlie Gonzalez is a Democrat. He represents Texas's 20th district, that includes a large part of the city of San Antonio. He's the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and he was kind enough to join us from the studios in the House of Representatives. Congressman Gonzalez, thank you so much for joining us.

GONZALEZ: My pleasure.

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