MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: They were sick and tired of hearing catcalls and comments from men on the street, so a group of young women have started a campaign to try to stop it. That's later in the program.
But first, the nation's lawmakers have gone home to celebrate the Fourth of July, but there's little to celebrate for backers of a compromised immigration bill. The bill was pulled off the legislative calendar last week after failing - I'm sorry - falling 14 votes short of the 16 needed to limit debate and clear the way for final passage. It's a major blow to President Bush, who backed the bipartisan measure.
The bill died after days of fierce lobbying by both supporters and opponents of the bill, who did managed to agree on one thing: the current system is broken, which leaves us to ask, what's next for immigration reform?
Joining us from our Washington studio to talk about this is Gabriela Lemus, executive director of a Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian-American Justice Center.
Welcome to you both. Thanks for coming in.
Dr. GABRIELA LEMUS (Executive Director, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement): Thank you.
Ms. KAREN NARASAKI (Executive Director, Asian-American Justice Center): Thank you.
MARTIN: I'm sure everybody has a million reasons why this bill died, but I'd to ask each of you, what are your top three? Lack of political skill? Lack of political will? Karen?
Ms. NARASAKI: I think, actually, what happened was it was a little bit difficult from the beginning, because President Bush decide to empower Senator Kyl with the hope that he would be able to bring along the conservatives. Many of us thought that was a failed strategy from the beginning, and what happened was they kept pushing the bill to the right, hoping to get the more conservative Republicans. That never happened. In fact, in this last vote, we lost half of the Republicans who voted for a bill last year. And so I think it was really a failure of the Republican leadership.
MARTIN: Okay. Gabriela? Your turn.
Dr. LEMUS: I would have to concur with Karen. Frankly, you know, first off, the bill had a lot of problems to begin with. I think it demonstrates how ideologically polarized the Senate is - probably, how ideologically polarized the country is over the issue. And the failure to really come together and actually get - I hate to say it - get serious about this issue is really been a challenge. And I think that that contributed to its ultimate failure. And, again, like I said, I completely concur with what Karen just said.
MARTIN: As I understand it, your organization initially supported the bill, but then later opposed it. Is that - do I have that right?
Dr. LEMUS: That's correct. We were looking forward to moving forward, literally. And as it kept getting worse and worse in terms of the amendments, we started getting very concerned with the language. Our board met together and had a discussion. And they're like, you know, if this continues like this, we have to oppose the current language. But we ultimately, you know, let, you know, obviously, let the procedure go through.
MARTIN: But what was the main source of your objection? What was it that triggered - that moved you from the pro to the anti column?
Dr. LEMUS: There were several amendments that passed, specifically Senator Cornyn's amendment, I think, was basically the poison pill. We were very concerned at what that would do to the status of the undocumented as they tried to regularize. And that more and more as it moved further and further to the right, it seemed that less and less people were going to be able to document themselves and come into a legal status.
MARTIN: And Senator Cornyn's amendment, refresh our memory, would you…
Dr. LEMUS: Essentially, I've - we just kind of summarized it as criminalizing the undocumented for use of fraudulent documents, and that would create a great challenge in terms of getting people to come forward, and, you know, make sure that they regulize their status.
MARTIN: Because the reason some people had fraudulent documents was so that they could work, as opposed to engaging identity theft or…
Dr. LEMUS: That is correct.
MARTIN: …underlying offenses that the - the offense was related to their desire to - it was related to their immigration status, as opposed to desiring a separate criminal activity. I understand.
Dr. LEMUS: That's right.
MARTIN: Karen, I wanted to - just for clarification purpose, so much of the public discussion focused on illegal immigration from Central and South America, but I just wanted to help our listeners understand what the stake - what stake do the Asian-American community had in the bill. Was it - how extensive do you think illegal immigration is among Asians, or how many illegal Asian immigrants do you think there are in the country?
Ms. NARASAKI: Well, in some ways, the bill had an even greater impact on Asian-Americans. There's about a million undocumented Asian-Americans, about 10 percent of the community is actually undocumented. It doesn't get discussed as much publicly or even privately within the Asian-American community. But also, this was a comprehensive bill that touched on family, as well as employment-based immigration. And those two features really affect Asian-Americans. So anything that was on this bill was going to have, in fact, a disproportionate impact on the Asian-American community.
MARTIN: And talk to me about - you heard Gabriela discuss her group's reservations about the bill. One of the features of the bill was to move to a so-called point system to award priority to some immigrants over others. How does your organization address that issue? Did you support it? Oppose it? How do you feel it impacted the Asian-American community?
Ms. NARASAKI: Yeah. The Asian-American community pretty roundly opposed the point system. The Bush administration tried to put a bright light on, and said, well, it would actually help some Asian-Americans from India, for example, who come here with graduate educations and can speak English. But by and large, it was going to vastly undermine the Asian-American immigration. Just to give you an idea, in 2005, almost three-quarters of people came in as brothers and sisters, which is just one of the categories that was eliminated in favor of the point system, were from Asia. Similarly, adult children are very important to Asian-American families, and that was eliminated as well.
So the Asian-American community also had huge problems with the bill. We wanted to move forward to the House, but that was actually one of the problems. The bill had moved so far to the right, that those of us who are supportive of the immigrant community couldn't really enthusiastically say this is a great bill, pass the bill. All we could say is, well, the bill is horrible, but we need to give the House a chance.
MARTIN: We're speaking Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian-American Justice Center and Gabriela Lemus, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement about what's next for immigration reforms.
So Gabriela Lemus, let's talk about what's next. And before we do that, I wanted to ask you, what was the reaction among the people you talked with? You worked so hard, you - Karen. Other groups have worked so hard on this bill. I just wondered what it was like over the weekend, facing the reality of the bill's defeat?
Dr. LEMUS: The community is pretty devastated. I think we have literally seen tears and just dejection on the part of - especially the undocumented, but also their families and, you know, I think Karen raised a very important point about the whole family unification component, that would have been, you know, it would affect us in many ways. I think the community is pretty devastated, and we are all wondering what's next and how are we going to push this forward.
MARTIN: What are you going to do?
Dr. LEMUS: Well, we are going to continue meeting with our members of Congress. We need to start afresh. The…
MARTIN: Does that mean scrap the whole bill and literally start over?
Dr. LEMUS: I don't know. That's up to the senators, but - and the House. However, I do think that they were going down a very slippery slope, especially with regards to this family unification piece and the point system, because that, you know, essentially would've ended immigration as we know it and would have completely changed the face. And we would have gone into something completely untried, completely new. And this is with, you know, when we talk about a broken system, the system is literally - the infrastructure is broken. We have family lines that go from, you know, 14 to 18 years. I know it affects the Asian community. It definitely affects the Latino community and just about anybody who's involved in with wanting to bring family here.
MARTIN: And you're not just talking about illegal immigration. You're saying that persons who are legally in the cue are waiting 14 years…
Dr. LEMUS: That is correct.
MARTIN: …for two or more for…
Dr. LEMUS: Or more. I generally - I just met a gentleman in the taxi. He says he's been waiting on his family member for 29 years. I mean, that's absurd.
MARTIN: You're talking about on your way over here today?
Dr. LEMUS: Yes, that's correct.
MARTIN: Twenty-nine years. Karen Narasaki, does this mean, effectively, that any legislative effort to resolve these issues is dead until the 2008 elections?
Ms. NARASAKI: We don't think so. Obviously, the ability to actually get legislation done this year is probably over, given the fact that Congress is set to recess for summer, and then has a lot of appropriations bills to do. But we're going to continue to work with the House. The House had a totally different process. It was not behind closed doors. They've had over a dozen hearings on every aspect of the system, as Gabriela says, why is it broken? What are the options for fixing it? It's been a very recent debate.
We hope that they're going to continue to try to keep that tone and really have a substantive discussion, not what happened in the Senate, which became a partisan debacle, but a substantive discussion about - we all do agree in one thing: the system's broken. And the challenge is what are we going to do to fix it.
MARTIN: What - speaking of a recent debate, one of the things that's been difficult, I think, for people to talk about are the emotion surrounding immigration. And one of the things - I think you've heard a lot of, particularly in conservative talk radio, are people who really believe that illegal immigration - are of high degree of illegal immigration - is having a negative effect on the quality of wages, the quality of life and the quality of public services in this country. Is there anything that supporters of reform like you can say to change these people's minds?
Ms. NARASAKI: Well, that's exactly why you need to legalize this population, because it's in the vulnerability of the undocumented. That's because they're in such a vulnerable position that bad employers can exploit them and do exploit them. They don't follow the wage and hour laws. They don't allow - you can't allow them to organize into unions, so it is a problem. And, in fact, the best way to raise wages and to protect American-born workers is to legalize people.
Unless you believe that we can really push 12 million people out, then that's the only way we're going to be able to do it. And I would think that most Americans, in fact, would not want to live in a kind of communities they'd have to live in to make it so unpleasant and horrible and harsh to drive 12 million people out of the country.
What I tried to explain with Asian-American communities, our population is about 14 million. We're about the size of the undocumented population. It would be like trying to get rid of every Asian-American in this country. It's not doable.
MARTIN: Gabriela, a final word from you. What - is there anything you can say to persons who believe that persons of - illegal immigrants is deteriorating the quality of life to change their minds or to get them to support immigration reform?
Dr. LEMUS: I would say first and foremost, fix the system so that's it more sensible and useable so that people don't feel compelled to come over with an undocumented status. The other thing I would say is let's get smart. Instead of spending $4.4 billion on the border, why don't we look at creating some kind of economic development fund that we look at these different countries and - you know, and look at our economic policies and sort of the distortions that they've created and making people feel compelled to leave and come to the United States?
MARTIN: Well, thank you both for coming in, and hopefully, you'll come back and talk to us again as this issue continues - as you've discussed, it's not going to go away. We're joined by Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian-American Justice Center, and Gabriela Lemus, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. They both joined me here in the studio. Thank you so much.
Ms. NARASAKI: Same to you, Michel.
Dr. LEMUS: Thank you.
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