Lawmaker Predicts Changes in Immigration Policy

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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, making her one of the leading immigration policymakers in Washington. Lee talks to Farai Chideya about the fight over amnesty and where she sees the debate heading next.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now I'm joined by Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas. She's a member of several key House committees, including the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. Congresswoman, it's great to have you back on the show

Representative SHEILA JACKSON-LEE (Democrat Texas): It's a delight to be here with you and your listeners, and I really look forward during the long-term process of debating this question on immigration to be back with you again.

CHIDEYA: Well, you come from another mixed area. We were just speaking with T. Willard Fair from Miami. You are representing a black and Latino and white district. Do you feel that your loyalties as a black legislator are divided by the issues that we were just discussing, of economics and immigration?

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: No. Frankly, I believe they're enhanced, and let me indicate why. The idea of immigration is long standing, but many times the debate is lost as relates to the diversity of immigration. Haitians, a huge Caribbean population, a huge African population - those are, if you will, individuals of African descent, and therefore there is a great responsibility as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus or an African-American to be assured that any debate on immigration includes those voices.

But frankly, I think we're away from the crux of the issue if we begin to suggest that all the problems that plague the indigenous African-American population - when I say that, those who came here as slaves and are here as African-Americans and United States citizens - that is based totally on the immigration question.

Immigrants usually come, and they come at the bottom of the ladder and they move up. Our problem has been in the African-American community - rightly so -that there have been injustices in this country. So, for example, incarcerated persons don't have second chances and are able to come out, be educated and get jobs. Our public school systems are crumbling and we haven't funded them in our areas. And the job market has been discriminatory. And the federal government should accept that challenge. So therefore, any immigration bill that we as African-American members of Congress will support beyond earned access to legalization, border security, must have recognition that American companies must hire America first.

They must look to train and retain American workers. And yes, we must have a fixed job training program guaranteed to go into inner-city areas and rural areas and lift the votes of those African-Americans and other citizens who have been deprived, who have been discriminated against, and who, frankly, have not gotten their own first chance. That doesn't mean that we have to be angry with immigrants who are themselves struggling, trying to achieve for their families, trying to pay taxes, trying to build houses, and trying to be constructive. What we have to do is diversify the employment opportunities for those who are here and try to fix the problem, which bears on security for those who aren't yet documented.

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman, this whole process is really confusing. The Senate voted to move forward, but it hasn't passed anything. Can you give us an idea in really basic terms of what to expect in the coming months?

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: Well, the Senate has put together a hodgepodge of compromises and I - if you will - accept the difficulty of the challenge that they were engaged in. This was not the bill of last year. So the bill has some glaring lightning rods that caused different sides of the opinion poll to be against it: the touch back, the building of a fence, the fees that have to be required, I believe no job training focus, no focus on Haitians in any large amount, no focus on the Caribbean or Africans in their predicament that they're in.

So we now on the House side are continuing to have hearings. Every day, there are going to be some visits to communities to try and glean what they need. And they're probably will not be a House bill until sometime in June. Then, we'll move forward to try and pass a House bill, and then there will have to be a reconciliation of the two bills, which means there has to be a conference. It's a long journey.

And I think the difficulty is that the president, rather than do the heavy lifting on the basic bill of last year and to add some of the necessities of border security, instructed his operatives in the Senate to come up with a very strong, strict bill that penalizes those from the Caribbean and other places if it focuses on giving points to those who may have Ph.D.s versus those who have master's or BAs or just are skilled workers. So it sort of hurts those who've been here working and contributing to say, well, if you're not highly educated, you can't get into the country.

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman, I just...

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: That's the problem with this bill.

CHIDEYA: We're almost out of time. Just very briefly, Bill Richardson announced in running for president that if there were a border fence allocation, if elected, he would tear it down. How do you feel about the fence issue?

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: Very quickly. Security is a very important issue and the Congressional Black Caucus supports it strongly. However, there are many ways of doing that: more border personnel and virtual fence technology. Because many on the border who engage in trade and ingress and egress and tourism are saying that a border fence will only be there to be torn down, not necessarily by President Bill Richardson if he were to be elected but by the very people who live on the border who are citizens, who want to be able to engage back and forth. We've always been...

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman...

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: And that should be something that we should reconsider.

CHIDEYA: All right. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Sheila Jackson-Lee, congresswoman, Democrat of Texas. And just ahead, Africa Update with Charlayne Hunter-Gault and poet Lucille Clifton.

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