Illinois Congressman: Immigration Reform Cannot Wait

President Obama says he wants to change United States immigration policy. But so far, immigration has taken a backseat to other pressing issues, like health care, the economic recession and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, wants to bump immigration to the top of the President's agenda. Gutierrez explains why he thinks comprehensive immigration reform cannot wait any longer.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we find out what Haitian migrants want from the Obama administration.

But first, reviving immigration reform. Since taking office in January, President Obama has said repeatedly that he'd like to change U.S. policy on immigration. But the issue has slipped as other priorities crowd the agenda in Congress: kick starting the U.S. economy, performing health care, managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, advocates say the time to reignite the immigration debate is now.

One person leading the effort is Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez. He represents Illinois's 4th District and also chairs the immigration taskforce of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Welcome to the program.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you.

LUDDEN: We're going to get to your specific proposal in a minute. But first, let me ask you about timing because clearly the administration and Congress are juggling, you know, a handful of huge issues. Why do you think they also need to squeeze in immigration now?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Well, it's a pressing issue. Twelve million undocumented workers in the United States living in a condition of exploitation, living in fear, living in the shadows of our society, everyday the government picks up undocumented workers and separates them from their children. We've made a promise. I think we should keep it.

LUDDEN: The Obama administration has been continuing parts of the immigration crackdown begun under President Bush, but says it has eased up on other parts. What are you hearing from your constituents who might be affected?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Well, I don't think people are buying a kinder, gentler enforcement. When you wake up in the morning without your dad or without your mom and key members of your family and you see the kind of fear and trepidation that exists in the community, there's no way to be kinder and gentler about this. The fact is that many of the same enforcement procedures have been enhanced under the Barack Obama administration and the same kinds of numbers that we saw - the unprecedented numbers that we saw…

LUDDEN: Deportation numbers.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: …in the last term of George Bush are being matched with those of the first year of Barack Obama.

LUDDEN: Now, when immigration was a top domestic agenda back in 2006 and 2007, it was debated on the floor of Congress. It was hotly debated and divisive. I mean, in many ways, the vitriol we heard then was similar to this past summer when we had the health care debates. Is it possible to have a civilized debate on immigration?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: That's a great question. Is it possible? I think it's necessary. It appears that sometime in February, early March, there'll be a debate on the Senate floor. Is it going to be nasty and mean? Sure, there'll be a lot of people who will use this as a wedge issue once again and bring bigotry and hatred back to the debate. But, you know, what? We have done it before and I think the health care debate is going to help us prepare for this one actually.

LUDDEN: Let's focus on your bill now which you plan to formally introduce, you said, by the end of this year. It's similar to past proposals, smart enforcement at the border and inside the country and eventual legalization for the millions of undocumented in the U.S. There's also a new part, it calls for a commission to match foreign visas with actual labor market demand. Can you explain how that would work?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Here's the principle, the guiding principle. No American worker, no citizen of the United States, no one born here in this country should ever have to lose an opportunity for gainful employment at the expense of someone not born here. And so what we have to do is make it clear that we're matching needs that actually exist in our society for workers in specific areas and specific geographical areas and match them.

LUDDEN: And this would be designed to deal with future demand. I mean right now people say…

Rep. GUTIERREZ: There would be - there would be two ways that you'll deal with future demand. You will deal with future demand on the basis of family reunification. That is, if you're in the United States, obviously there would be provisions in the bill to allow you to bring your wife, to bring your minor children. But we're talking about immediate family. So, you know, we're not talking about you bringing your cousin, not talking about bringing your aunt. With all respect to cousins and aunts, I love mine very, very much. We're talking about your wife, we're talking about your children, we're talking about your mom and your dad and your brothers, your immediate family.

LUDDEN: But would you then restrict for the future the family members that could be brought in?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: No, I think we can find a wonderful combination. I really believe that families are a cornerstone and a bedrock to the continued good functioning of our society. But at the same time, I do understand that you need future flows of immigrants to come to the United States. We have meat packing plants across this country. We have people who are working in the vineyards, just to make it simple, right, and also picking our garlic and our strawberries and every other fruit and vegetable that we eat. Those are important jobs to our economy and so we need a flow of workers to come and perform those jobs.

LUDDEN: Is that still true with about 10 percent unemployment rate? And anytime you talk about a future way to bring in more workers, I mean, what if you then, you know, face another downturn and suddenly you've got too many and people are calling for their deportation again?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Okay. So that is why you need to have it done in a scientific manner. So, many of the meat packing plants, for example, well, they're in small towns in Iowa and Nebraska and Oklahoma and there isn't sufficient population there to fill them. So what do you get? You would get large communities of immigrants moving there, new communities of immigrants working there. Is that somewhat changing? Yeah, it changes. So, there isn't a perfect system, but I think we can get a pretty good system in place.

LUDDEN: You know, President Obama has said he's not likely to turn to immigration before next year…

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: …which is a mid-term election year for many in Congress, yourself included…

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: …realistically speaking, the politics of it all, doesn't that make it really hard to pass legislation on such a contentious issue?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Yes, it does make it very hard. And so that's why I believe our window is very small. That is to say, you do health care, you get the energy bill passed in the House and the Senate. Get both of those bills signed by the president. That should bring us to about the beginning of February and that's the window, I think you have that window of February and March. And once you go into April, you really have a diminishing opportunity because you do have the midterm elections getting closer and closer.

LUDDEN: Congressman Luis Gutierrez is a Democrat who represents Illinois's 4th District and chairs the Immigration Taskforce of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He joined us from Chicago. Thanks very much.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Thank you. It was wonderful.

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