September 2, 2005

Immigration Reform Must Seize Moral Ground, Says Texas Lawmaker

By Sandip Roy and Rene Ciria-Cruz

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) has introduced HR2092, The "Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2005."

Question: What’s the cornerstone of your immigration reform bill?

REP. JACKSON-LEE: We’re on at least two tracks. One is to document those who are within our borders, 14 million and possibly more, to understand who’s here and give them the opportunity to have access to legalization, pay taxes and social security, buy homes, send their children to school and belong in America.

But we must also secure our borders, crack down on fraudulent documents and prevent human smuggling and trafficking. I would give more resources to professionally trained border patrol agents — not untrained militia such as the Minutemen.

Q: Why did you name it the “Save America Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act”?

A: We need to save America from inertia, from lack of respect for the dignity of human beings who are in this country simply for the chance to work and invest in a future for their children. Americans must be saved from the lack of jobs, but we must save ourselves from the idea that immigrants cause our lack of jobs.

Q: How is it different from other immigration bills?

A: My bill tries to correct the mistakes of the 1996 immigration reform. It doubles the number of visas for family reunification — to 900,000. It doesn’t put the burden of proof on asylum seekers as the 1996 law does. It makes less damning misdemeanor offenses committed by juveniles, which the 1996 law turned into felonies, that make them subject to deportation to countries they may have been born in but haven’t been to in the last 20 years or so.

Q: But won’t access to legalization reward those who broke the law while penalizing those who have waited in line to be documented?

A: We’ve heard that refrain over and over. You’ll here it again from opponents of reform. Certainly, you don’t want to victimize people who came here legally and are in line for documentation. So, let’s enhance the resources — to deal with lost fingerprints, and so on — to speed up the process so those who are already in line can move quickly.

I would put in another line, not in front of those who are waiting, those who entered illegally and give them a separate documentation process. Fees for legalization will be set aside to help fund job training in poor communities. We want to provide some documentation so we know who’s in the country — for our security — so they’ll come out of the darkness into employment, without undermining those who were already waiting in line for years.

Q: Some may say it’s “too liberal” to pass a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Does it stand a chance?

A: No bill passes without modification. I’m excited that there’s a McCain-Kennedy bill in the Senate. I recognize that there are several ways of looking at immigration, including the best way. So there needs to be a task force made up of the proponents of the McCain-Kennedy bill, the Cornyn-Kyl bill, which I don’t agree with, and in the House, the Kolbe-Gutierrez bill, which tracks the McCain-Kennedy bill.

Therefore, my question to President Bush is, when will you use the bully pulpit to bring us together to tackle immigration reform?

Q: Why don’t you have provisions for a guest worker program like the other bills?

A: I’m open to guest worker programs for agricultural workers. But immigrants I’ve spoken to deserve to be heard on this issue. They tell me such programs entice more people into the country though the jobs may not be available. That requiring guest workers to go back home is impractical — they’d rather stay here and be undocumented, undiscovered, than return to countries that can’t support them economically or are repressive, or have laws that are oppressive to women.

I would ask proponents of the program whether it’s realistic to expect droves and droves of workers to be able to return to their home countries after years of working here.

Q: You’re not proposing changes in employer sanctions for hiring the undocumented, is that right?

A. I take a step back on this. I would like to add more resources to enhance the enforcement of current sanctions, but I’m also concerned that employer sanctions also sanction the worker, who’s somewhat innocent on this. I’m also concerned that sanctions may cause businesses to shut down. I’m open to discussion.

Q: There are rising tensions among blacks and Latinos in some cities. What does it signify that you, an African American lawmaker, are pushing for reforms that will benefit mainly Latinos and other immigrants?

A: Because the federal government has not addressed real immigration reform, we’ve let tensions rise in our communities. People are made to believe that they’re denied good health care and job opportunities because of others. We can’t blame the immigrant for seeking economic opportunity.

We’ve lost the high moral ground because we’ve waited too long to speak to Americans who have traditionally been able to live together. The Hispanic movement for equality tracked the civil rights movement. As an African American woman I can understand the plight of the immigrant. It’s time to address this issue in a comprehensive and meaningful way.

May I add that Haitians, people from the Caribbean and Africa are also immigrants seeking economic opportunities or fleeing political repression? My bill makes provisions for them too.

So we’re all in this together. We must stem the tide of illegal immigration, but I do realize we’re a nation of immigrants, as it is a nation of laws. We must make immigration an engine of economic growth again.

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