By Erin Kelly, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – Republican leaders of a key House panel said Tuesday they are willing to offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children but cannot do the same for their parents who knowingly broke the law.
That position is opposed by the young immigrants the House leaders are trying to help, creating a dilemma for Republican lawmakers as they try to show compassion for the most sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants while remaining true to their party’s tough stance against illegal immigration. The House is trying to craft its own immigration legislation piece by piece after the Senate last month approved a sweeping overhaul that provides a pathway to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Immigrants brought here illegally as children “deserve to be treated from a different perspective” than immigrants who knowingly broke the law by crossing the border illegally or overstaying their visas, said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. An estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants were brought into the United States as children.
“They had no input into their parents’ decision to bring the family to the U.S. illegally,” Goodlatte said at a hearing of the panel’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. “And many of them know no other home than the United States, having grown up as Americans since they were toddlers in some instances. They surely don’t
share the culpability of their parents.”
Goodlatte is working with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on a bill tentatively called the “Kids Act” that would offer a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought to this country illegally by their parents. But he and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the immigration subcommittee, said they don’t believe the parents of those children should be able to become citizens.
“Parents bringing their young children to the U.S. illegally is not something we want to encourage,” Goodlatte said. “Not only because it would lead to continued illegal immigration, but also because illegally crossing the border is dangerous. We have all seen the pictures or even video of children who are dehydrated and lethargic from an arduous trek across the Arizona desert with their parents or with smugglers paid by their parents.”
Gowdy said he wants to make it clear that advocates who insist on a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States “will only end up hurting the most vulnerable.”
Goodlatte indicated he might be willing to consider giving some kind of legal status to the parents of young immigrants that stops short of citizenship.
But two of the young immigrants that Goodlatte and Gowdy are seeking to help testified that they would oppose any legislation that would help them while deporting their parents or barring their parents from ever earning citizenship.
“When members of Congress tell me that I deserve an opportunity to earn citizenship and my mother does not, I tell them that if anyone deserves that opportunity to earn citizenship, it is my mother, Rosalinda,” said Rosa Velazquez, a 30-year-old Arkansas resident and graduate student who was brought to this country illegally when she was 5 years old. “If Congress were to adopt an incomplete solution that would provide a path to earned citizenship for (young immigrants) like me, but something less for our parents, it would be like saying that I can now be one of you, but my parents can never be. Such a solution would tell (us) that our hardworking parents are good enough to pick your crops, babysit your children, landscape your yard, and at the same time never treated as equal members of this society.”
Pamela Rivera, a U.S. citizen who was born in California to undocumented immigrant parents, was asked by Goodlatte about how her mother would feel about getting legal status to stay in the United States but not getting citizenship. Rivera’s mother was deported to Colombia six years ago after being caught during a minor traffic violation.
“She wants to be a part of this country,” Rivera said. “She still thinks of herself as an American. I think my mother would want a shot at becoming a citizen.”
A leader of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention told the House panel that he would like Congress to give immediate protection from deportation to young immigrants brought here as children. About a quarter of them have already applied for protection from deportation under an Obama administration program started a year ago that allows them to stay in the country and work legally for at least two years.
“I think you must also consider the parents of these young people,” said Barrett Duke, a vice president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “They are likely still their principal supporters, especially of those who pursue an education track. I do not think that you can confer a legal status on their parents through this legislation. That should be part of the broader immigration reform that must be done.”
The issue of what to do about the estimated 9 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States illegally as adults is an especially difficult one for House leaders, who are faced with a divided GOP caucus. Conservatives generally see any kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants as amnesty for law breakers. Other Republicans, such as Goodlatte, would be willing to consider some sort of legal status that stops short of citizenship.
National Republican leaders and senators such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Republican Party must pass immigration reform if it has any hope of appealing to Latino voters in the future. Latinos voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats in the 2012 elections.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of the most vocal opponents of the Senate immigration bill, said at Tuesday’s hearing that he is skeptical of any citizenship bill, even one that would apply only to those brought here illegally as children.
King said such a bill could be “a backdoor route to amnesty” for all undocumented immigrants.
He said the attitude of some House leaders is that, “We’ll just do this little sliver here (for immigrant children) because this tugs at our heartstrings.”
But that could lead to special consideration for their parents and other family members, King said.
“You’ve sacrificed the rule of law on the altar of political expediency,” he said.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., an immigration reform leader, said Tuesday’s debate shows just how far House Republicans have come after years of rejecting efforts to legalize young immigrants brought here as children.
“I am not here to slam you,” Gutierrez told Republicans. “I am here to say thank you. I am here to say welcome aboard. Those of us who have sat at this table and felt lonely are glad you are stepping up again to talk this over with us. If the Republican majority is starting with the young people we call Dreamers because that is as far as you are willing to go in terms of legal status for undocumented immigrants, I say thank you for coming this far, because taking a step in the right direction is the first step in any good faith negotiation. It is the first step that says a compromise may be within reach. It is a place we can start.”
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