When the DREAM Act failed last year, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus feared it was a sign that immigration reform was dead in the water. It was a sentiment that grew stronger as the new, Tea Party-infused House rolled into D.C. months later.
U.S. Representative Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, who chairs the caucus, now says he hopes months of talks with administration officials and meetings with President Barack Obama are the start of a renewed push for comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, Obama was expected to announce his vision for immigration reform at his widely anticipated speech in El Paso as this paper went to press Tuesday. While the goal is lasting reform down the road, Gonzalez said he’s asking the President to start taking steps now, specifically in the case of DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents as children.
The caucus is also asking the administration to halt and retool its controversial Secure Communities program, which is intended to catch and deport serious criminals but which critics have said snares and deports untold numbers of immigrants with no criminal history. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement numbers show that at least 235 out of the 1,042 taken into ICE custody under the program in Bexar County had no criminal history. Of the 653 deported out of Bexar County under the program, roughly 100 had no criminal history.
Below are highlights from my conversation with Gonzalez this week.
What were the conversations between the Hispanic Caucus and the President?
Back in December, after the DREAM Act made it out of the House but didn’t get past the Senate because they couldn’t get the 60 votes, the President called us in within a week. He told us, ‘Hey, let’s put our thinking caps on. We can’t let this thing drop off the radar screen,’ and we were appreciative. … We obviously were very, very disappointed with how things had turned out. It was an astounding development that we had senators who said they didn’t believe that DREAM kids should be deported, but then didn’t allow it to come up for a vote.
The President got us together by the 21st of December. We put a proposal together and met with senior `administration` staff around February 16, with Chief of Staff Bill Daley and senior advisors to the President. We presented a three-page proposal on what we thought the President could do within his authority administratively to grant some relief to these kids who are being impacted. It’s no fault of their own. They didn’t violate any law, and yet they’re suffering as a result of an immigration system that’s broken. We felt strongly about that, so we went to see the President again to discuss our proposal. That was the discussion we had with him last week.
What specifically does the Caucus think the President can do?
What can we do with the DREAM kids, for instance, is that we can set a consistent and uniform policy so that if there’s a DREAM kid that’s in the immigration process, we agree that they’re not a priority for deportation. We asked the President to set those priorities and see if we can set a uniform policy across `the Department of Homeland Security`, and he indicated that he does have those same priorities. The goal is not to detain and deport kids that have gone to college here or who wish to serve in the military. We’re also asking him to review the procedures in Secure Communities, which is a program that was devised to identify, apprehend and deport dangerous criminals.
What do you wish to see change with Secure Communities?
We’re saying that if the goal is to catch dangerous criminals, then make a program that does just that. Why would you ensnare and deport somebody who doesn’t have a criminal record and is somehow stopped for one reason or another? They’re not the identifiable, targeted criminal element we say we’re looking for right now. We want to find the criminals, but what `Secure Communities` is doing is ensnaring a lot of people that don’t have a criminal history — students, people who have families in the United States, people who have American citizen children. So we’re just saying set clear priorities for this program. Concentrate on apprehending those that truly don’t add anything to our society and that pose a threat to the safety and welfare of our citizens.
Do you think comprehensive reform can happen in the near term?
We don’t want to lose sight of getting a legislative fix, no matter what the odds are in this present Congress. We’re not going to let people basically ignore the need for a legislative fix here. `The President` should look at things he can do administratively `within DHS`, but ultimately he can’t just change the law, and we agree with that.
We’re not asking for forgoing enforcement, forgoing processing. But I would ask opponents of reform that if anything short of deportation is amnesty, then you’re not really open to a legislative fix. Unfortunately, you still have people saying that anything short of deportation for all of these people is amnesty. We’re looking for something that allows you to earn this pathway to citizenship, which I think is the American way.
Staff Writer Michael Barajas’ column Migrant Nation about immigration issues will appear in the Current monthly.