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Hispanic Caucus Demands Action

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus publicly railed against its own Democratic majority on Wednesday, incensed over House leaders’ decision to advance several narrowly focused immigration bills — including an enforcement-only measure backed by Republicans — while a comprehensive reform bill remains dormant.

“The Congressional Hispanic Caucus wants to do what is right, and it makes that demand of the Democratic leadership,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who chairs the CHC’s Immigration Task Force.

Hispanic lawmakers criticized House Democratic leaders’ decision to move ahead with hearings in several committees on Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D-N.C.) border-and- enforcement-focused bill, as well as efforts to approve an increase in visas for both temporary workers and the technology field, and instead demanded action on comprehensive legislation that would also address a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million-plus illegal immigrants now in the country.

“If a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives can allow hearings simply on punitive enforcement measures against immigrants, ... if a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives refuses to fight for reasonable, comprehensive reform that keeps families together and strengthens our security, then we are no better than the Republican majority we defeated,” Gutierrez said.

Democratic leaders moved to schedule a series of hearings on the Shuler bill in response to a number of Democrats who have signed onto a Republican-backed discharge petition to bring the enforcement measure directly to the floor. According to the Clerk of the House, the petition, sponsored by Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), has 186 co-signers, including 10 Democrats. It needs 219 signatures to succeed.

An aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) assigned blame for stalled efforts on comprehensive reform to President Bush. Democrats have repeatedly disparaged the White House for failing to win Republican support in 2007 for a measure that ultimately stalled in the Senate, and effectively killed any action on immigration reform in the 110th Congress.

“Speaker Pelosi is committed to balanced, fair and bipartisan immigration reform legislation, but unless the president and the Republican leadership engage Democrats in a positive way instead of using this issue to score partisan political points, members will only grow more frustrated with the process,” spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, criticized the CHC in a statement Wednesday, accusing the Democrats of blocking efforts to bring the enforcement legislation to the House floor.

“For months, the Democratic Majority and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have prevented the House of Representatives from voting on critical immigration legislation, including a border security bill and an emergency increase in H-1B visas for American high-tech companies. They have held this legislation hostage to their demand for a massive amnesty for twelve million illegal immigrants, a demand that the Senate has already rejected,” Smith stated.

“Unfortunately, the Hispanic Caucus indicated today that it will not relent. The Caucus and the House Democratic Leadership will continue to place the interests of illegal immigrants above the interests of the American people,” he added.

CHC Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.) sought to strike down such criticism Wednesday, asserting that Hispanic lawmakers have served as “a punching bag on immigration” for months and have been the subject of “one-sided attacks.”

“These bills are nothing more than a Band-Aid being used to cover up a gaping wound,” Baca asserted at the CHC’s press conference, criticizing the bills now under consideration in the House.

Although CHC members also renewed their calls for the House to take up the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, a wide-ranging measure introduced last year, Baca said Hispanic lawmakers would not force that issue to the floor, but would simply seek to raise consciousness on the bill.

“We create the awareness. ... It isn’t really an attack on leadership or anyone else,” Baca said following the press conference.

Asked whether CHC members would oppose any of the “piecemeal” immigration efforts en masse, Baca replied: “I don’t know.” But he predicted it is unlikely the Shuler legislation would make it to the House floor.

“I doubt it will ever make it out of committee,” Baca said, and added that he believes Democratic leaders will respond to the CHC’s complaints in the near future: “We’ll probably have hearings on comprehensive immigration.”

Hispanic lawmakers had worked to reach agreement on a wide-ranging immigration reform measure — including five-year visas for illegal immigrants, increases in temporary visas used by workers in seasonal industries, as well as enforcement — before the March recess, but that deal was ultimately unsuccessful.

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