Border, Immigration: Top Issues On Calderon's Visit

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Beneath all of the fanfare of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's official state visit, serious issues are being hashed out. Presidents Obama and Calderon share a desire to stem the violence of the drug war along the border and hope to resolve a growing illegal immigration problem. Congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) share their reaction to the visit thus far, and what they hope will come of it.


I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

As we discussed earlier, the White House hosted the Mexican president for a state dinner for the first time since 2001. Beneath all the fanfare, though, the two administrations are trying to hash out some serious issues. Presidents Obama and Calderon share a desire to stem the violence of the drug war along the border and both hope to calm tensions over illegal immigration.

Democratic Congressmen Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Raul Grijalva of Arizona both vocal on these issues, are with us to share their impression to the visit so far. Congressmen, thanks for joining us.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): Pleasure to be with you, Allison.

Representative RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): Thank you.

KEYES: Mr. Grijalva, let me start with you because you apparently were at the state dinner last night. Did you have a good time and did you get a chance to discuss some of your concerns with the powers that be?

Rep. GRIJALVA: Yes, I had a good time. And, no, I didn't get a chance to discuss with the powers that be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. GRIJALVA: It was more the reception part. We weren't part of the dinner. And it was a social evening. I think the real issue work or real discussions on some of the issues that are important to all of us that neither was the opportunity nor the time.

KEYES: Was it on the minds of people, though, the immigration reform?

Rep. GRIJALVA: Oh, yeah. I mean, all the discussions at all the tables was about, you know, we hope President Calderon says something at his address to Congress dealing with immigration, the urgency for it and this an appropriate time that he's here to not only raise the issue, but put in front of Congress and the American people the fact that something needs to be done and done quickly.

KEYES: Congressman Gutierrez, I think somehow your invitation was lost in the mail?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Yeah, I think that's what it was, because I'm sure that's what happened. But I was enjoying a fine dinner yesterday with some of my colleagues.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Which we did get to discuss comprehensive immigration reform, so we got some work done.

KEYES: I feel for our listeners that don't know. I have to point out. You've been, shall we say, very outspoken on immigration reform. In fact, you were recently handcuffed in front of the White House, which apparently did not go over well with the president.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Well, you know, the president made a promise. He said he would bring people out of the shadow into the light of day. He would stop the destructive force of our immigration policy on our family. And I am going to continue to use every ounce that I have of my body, of my energy, of my talent, of my voice to make sure that he carries out that promise and commitment. He has very good days and he has bad days on the issue.

I'm hoping that this visit of the president will refocus his attention and reprioritize the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. If that little second grade girl didn't do anything else, she certainly synthesized what the real issue is. It's about families and crystallized its importance and its urgency.

KEYES: I'm glad that you brought that up because I was curious what you were hearing from your colleagues and constituents about how that played out. Congressman Gutierrez, let me have you answer and then Congressman Grijalva, I'd love to hear yours. But Luis first.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Well, you know, Congressman Grijalva and I, we did a Familias Unidas campaign. And I traveled to 30 cities over the last year, Familias Unidas, United Families. It was about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. It was structured in our faith-based community and it was all testimonies from family. And Congressman Grijalva and I with pastor, we did one together in Phoenix, which we heard identical stories to the one that little child told about family members dying, family members being separated.

So, her story, while it may be unique and new to much of the American public, yesterday is unfortunately a story we hear too many times in the immigrant/Latino community about the destructive force of our immigration system. There are five-and-a-half million American citizen children whose parents are undocumented. Each and every day go to bed thinking, is mom going to be there in the morning?

KEYES: Congressman Gutierrez, I need to jump in and ask Congressman Grijalva, have you heard any concerns about what's going to happen to the little girl and her family?

Rep. GRIJALVA: Well, you know, the concerns are played out every day in our community. So I think that two-minute clip of that very innocent and very honest little girl is played out every day. And the concerns are constant: Am I going to be here with my family? Is my mom going to be taken away? It's a tragedy that unfolded in two minutes in front of all the American people, but it's been a tragedy that is part of daily life in many, many of our communities across this country.

And the apprehension about what will happen to the mom, the apprehension of what'll happen to the little girl is there for all of us and it's replicated over and over and over again all across this country.

KEYES: Gentlemen, let's listen to a clip of President Obama from the joint Rose Garden press conference he held yesterday with President Calderon.

President BARACK OBAMA: We discussed the need for immigration that is orderly and safe. And we acknowledge that both our countries have responsibilities. President Calderon is working hard to create jobs so that more Mexicans see a future of opportunity in their country.

To fix our broken immigration system, I reaffirm my deep commitment to working with Congress in a bipartisan way to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

KEYES: Congressman Grijalva, you're from Arizona, what are your impressions about how this issue has been handled on this visit?

Rep. GRIJALVA: A lot of the content we don't know what the discussions were between both presidents and their staffs. But it's been made a public issue, which I think is good. There's a lot of superficial talk to it and not a lot of content. But the fact that it is a public issue and, as we said earlier, reaffirming on a good day that comprehensive reform is going to be an issue that will be dealt with and dealt with immediately, is a reaffirmation that we need constantly.

And I think the president needs to put his foot to the gas and say, Congress, start moving on it, start the hearings. Let's look at a blueprint and begin to work at it. Because if we just talk about the need for it and don't put any real work and content to that need, then it becomes superficial discussion.

KEYES: Congressman Gutierrez, President Obama also talked about immigration reform legislation. And he basically seemed to put the ball in the Republican's court. I mean, he said that without the 60 votes in the Senate, he was going to need some Republican support to get this done. Do you think the White House is going to move forward on the commitment that he made while he was campaigning?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: I hope so. It's imperative that we get it done. There are 12 million undocumented workers in this country whose exploitation and plight I think we really need to respond to. It seems to me that the president of the United States is correct in that when he says we need more Republican support, the Republican leadership, the Republican congressmen and senator have been absent, completely, from the table.

But at the same time, look, extraordinary president, great president, which I believe Barack Obama has the incredible potential of being an extraordinary president. He's demonstrated it already in other facets of his presidency. Bring and create coalitions where the votes don't exist.

Anyone could be president if the votes were there. I think he has an incredible command of the issue and articulation and a voice that we need to hear much more clearly on this issue. Bring Republicans to the table. Set the table, tell us where the menu is, tell us when the date is and force them to come to the table. And if they don't show up, then at least all of those of us in the immigrant community know that you put up the best fight possible for them.

KEYES: Congressman Grijalva, are you hoping to see anything tangible come out of this visit?

Rep. GRIJALVA: Yeah, and I think the tangible issue is that the commitment by both countries not just to the issue of immigration reform, to the issue of quelling and making our border communities on both sides of the border safe again for families and individuals. I think that would be a tangible result and momentum for immigration reform.

If we leave this issue and not deal with it and put up a fight, like Luis said, at least so the American people and the immigrant community can know who's on their side, then we haven't accomplished anything. And we leave it to extreme elements and extreme political theory to then run immigration in this country as we've seen in Arizona with that law that was passed and signed by the governor that has created so much controversy and justifiably so.

You leave it in the hands of the fringe to solve immigration and the rest of us that are trying to do something rational and fair, get left on the sidelines. So I think it's incumbent on this president and after this visit to continue to push and, as Luis said, to lead that fight.

KEYES: Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Raul Grijalva of Arizona both joined us from their offices on Capitol Hill. Gentlemen, thanks for your insights and for joining us.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Pleasure to be with you, Allison.

Rep. GRIJALVA: Thank you.

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