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Roll Call

Latinos Angered as Hate Takes Center Stage in Immigration Debate

Hispanic lawmakers bashed Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and President Barack Obama on Monday for the way they have framed the debate on immigration reform as health care legislation plods along.

The furor that has grown since Wilson accused Obama last week of lying about health care reform not covering illegal immigrants is, for many Latino lawmakers, a preview of what is to come when Congress takes on comprehensive immigration reform.

“What we see here is, once again, that immigration continues to be an issue that brings hate out of people ... who forgot that their ancestors were immigrants, as I’m sure Mr. Wilson has forgotten. I don’t think he’s a Native American. So therefore, he doesn’t qualify as someone who should be attacking immigrants,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), one of several lawmakers attending a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute public policy conference this week.

The irony is that most people want health care reform, Serrano said, “but then they run around screaming, ‘Give us back our Constitution, give us back our country.’” Those same people “won’t like whatever we propose” when it comes time to address immigration reform.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leading voice on immigration reform in the House, took aim at Obama in the days following Wilson’s outburst for backing a mandate on the use of Social Security numbers as a way of verifying citizenship for those seeking health services.

“Wilson won that night with his hatred,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve taken it a step further in terms of enforcement. This on the heels of a secretary of Homeland Security who has made it abundantly clear to all of us that she wants to make sure she’s known as an ‘enforcement first’ secretary of Homeland Security.”

Gutierrez said Obama’s response to the idea of immigrants receiving health services seemed to be: “Let’s make sure we can act as dastardly and as mean as we can to show that we’re far, far away from those immigrants. Further away than anyone ever imagined.”

Since Wilson’s accusation, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has indicated that bipartisan negotiators are considering the citizen verification component in their health care bill. Others in the Senate’s gang of six want to include a five-year grace period before legal immigrants can receive benefits.

Serrano blasted Senate Democrats for throwing immigrants — legal and illegal — under the bus to appease critics of health care reform.

“If you’re asked to be a legal immigrant, you should not be told that for five years you’re going to legally pay taxes but not get any benefits. That would be wrong,” the New York Democrat said. “That would be more running away from the issue to satisfy a vocal little group.”

As health care reform continues to suck the oxygen out of Congress, key backers of comprehensive immigration reform are getting nervous that their window of opportunity may be about to pass.

“If we lose the opportunity between the end of this year and the very beginning of the first quarter of next year, we will be in the midst of midterm elections. ... I can tell you that will not happen in that period of time,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

If lawmakers fail to move immigration reform in the coming months, “we will lose this issue. And if we lose it in this time period, I believe we lose it probably for four years,” Menendez added.

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