It's Time For 'A Rational Approach' To Immigration

An immigration plan announced Monday by a bipartisan group of senators would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country and overhaul legal immigration. It also calls for improved border security and better tracking of individuals in the U.S. on visas. Steve Inskeep talks with one of the senators behind the plan, Republican Jeff Flake from Arizona.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, one of the senators involved in crafting the immigration plan is Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. Senator, good morning.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: Hey, thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: Glad you're with us. Now, Mara Liasson just noted in that report that a lot of House Republicans do not think they need to worry about the Hispanic vote in their district. There just aren't a lot of Hispanic voters in the districts as they've been drawn.

What would you say to those House Republicans?

FLAKE: Well, I would say that this doesn't just affect the Hispanic vote. I think we lose a lot of votes from others who realize that we haven't had a rational, humane policy here. So I would say that it doesn't just affect the Hispanic vote.

INSKEEP: So you are arguing that this is more - this is more broadly a problem for the Republican Party.

FLAKE: It is, it is. I think we've got to have a rational approach. And I think people understand, should understand that, you know, with 11 million people here, it's unlikely that they're going to be deported. It's even less likely that they'll self-deport.

INSKEEP: Now, you're talking here about a path to citizenship. And we should clarify that the principles that you and the other senators laid out include a lot of steps before anybody who is here illegally becomes a citizen. But there's a path to citizenship there. As you know very well, Senator, that in past years has been called amnesty by its opponents.

INSKEEP: It's been shouted down, using that word amnesty. It's a very strong word, but it is also a word that President Reagan used when he approved what he called amnesty. Are you willing on some level just to embrace that label, to say call it what you want, it's necessary to do?

FLAKE: No. I don't think you need to. If you look back in '86, it was amnesty because if you could prove that you'd been here five years you got a shortcut to a green card. You cut in line ahead of those who had been going through the legal orderly process. That won't be the case here. If you're going to get on a path to citizenship here, you have to get in line behind those who have gone through the process.

And it's a long and arduous process as well, with fines and back taxes and requirements to learn English, not just for citizenship but for permanent residency. And so there are a lot of things that are different here, as well as a certification or sign-off that border security has been achieved before the first person here illegally now gets on any path.

INSKEEP: At the same time, even though it would take you a while to become a citizen, people could become legal residents of the United States fairly quickly, couldn't they?

FLAKE: Well, they could have a legal status here, but as far as achieving a legal permanent residency, that will still take a while. Again, that requires some certification of border security as well as those who are going through the process now have to get through it.

INSKEEP: There's such a variety of proposals out there involving visas, visa requirements, border security and so forth. The path to citizenship, though, is the most controversial thing. Can you imagine any effort to pass a bill that includes the other items but somehow does not include a path to citizenship?

FLAKE: I suppose it's possible, but I think a lot of people think, you know, if somebody's going to be here as a legal permanent resident, if they're here permanently, then they ought to have skin in the game, if you will. There ought to be that possibility of citizenship. Now, I should point out that under the '86 law, I think only about half or less than half of those who were able to get citizenship actually pursued it.

So a lot of people don't want that goal, but some do, and I think for those who are going to be here 15, 20 years or for the rest of their lives, then why wouldn't we want them to become a citizen and have all the responsibilities and rights that come along with that?

INSKEEP: Senator Flake, we've only got a few seconds, but I'd like to ask: Republicans have spoken of immigration changes in practical terms - have to do it, the country is changing. Is there a moral argument for this course?

FLAKE: Well, particularly when you look at children who are brought here through no fault of their own. I think there is a moral obligation there. So there are certain aspects that I think we owe people who are really born without a country. And that will be taken care of in this legislation as well.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks very much.

FLAKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jeff Flake is a Republican Senator from Arizona, newly elected, former member of the House of Representatives here on MORNING EDITION.

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