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Roll Call

Hispanic Caucus Unveils Principles It Requires in an Immigration Overhaul

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
At a Wednesday news conference held by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Menendez, left, said the GOP “must understand that, on this issue, it must work with us to achieve what is good for the country and good for the immigrant community.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, emboldened after an election in which Latino voters overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama, released a nine-point list of principles Wednesday that the group insists must be part of any immigration overhaul.

Members of the caucus — which will increase its ranks from 20 lawmakers in the current Congress to 26 in the next — see a window for bipartisan action. They are encouraged because Obama and congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, have called, since the elections, for action on immigration; no specific legislation has yet emerged.

The list of principles the caucus released makes it clear that Hispanic lawmakers see a mandate in the election results, and several of them on Wednesday laid down a direct challenge to Republicans on immigration.

“If the Republican Party wants to be a national party, it must understand that, on this issue, it must work with us to achieve what is good for the country and good for the immigrant community,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said.

But the principles include many ideas that Democratic lawmakers have proposed before and that are certain to be a tough sell to the GOP.

The caucus’s first demand is that all of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants be given the chance to earn “a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship,” a position that comes into direct conflict with conservative Republican lawmakers who have rejected such proposals as “amnesty.”

Among the other principles outlined by the group:

Immigrant families, including same-sex couples, should remain unified during the immigration process.

Those brought to the United States illegally as children should be given a path to citizenship, an extension of a policy that the Obama administration has already put into effect.

Agricultural workers should be given a path to citizenship.

Foreign-born workers should be afforded “full labor rights” and “protection from discrimination.”

The list includes points that Republicans might support, such as requiring all immigrant workers to “pay their fair share of taxes” and strengthening security on both the northern and southern U.S. borders. The caucus also called for a “workable employment-verification system that prevents unlawful employment and rewards employers and employees who play by the rules.”

Menendez emphasized that, under the caucus’s principles, undocumented immigrants who earn legal residency must meet several conditions, including registering with the government, providing fingerprints, undergoing a criminal background check and — for the first time a part of the group’s recommendations — learning English.

“We have never required English-language ability for permanent residency,” Menendez said. “We have required that for U.S. citizenship but not for permanent residency, so it is a higher bar.”

Although the group represents only a small fraction of Congress, incoming Chairman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, said he has reached out to the other members of what is known as the Tri-Caucus — the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — to increase their collective influence over legislation. He said he wants to “build on the synergy of these 85 votes” and that he would ask Obama to meet with the groups as the immigration debate begins in earnest, most likely next year.

Even as the Hispanic Caucus unveiled its priorities, however, partisan complications were clear.

The House is scheduled to vote Friday on legislation (HR 6429) that would make 55,000 green cards available to foreign-born graduates of American universities in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math. The concept is popular in the business community and on both sides of the aisle, and it is one of the principles included in the Hispanic Caucus’ list.

The Republican-backed legislation, however, would make those green cards available by abolishing a separate program that awards green cards known as “diversity visas” though a lottery system. Democrats view that trade-off as unacceptable, and members of the Hispanic Caucus said Wednesday that they would vote against the Republican proposal when it comes to the floor Friday.

Menendez said the House proposal “didn’t follow the bipartisan effort that it could have” and that House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, did not do enough to bring Democrats aboard. “There was a deal on the table. It could have been had,” he said.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., said the bill is insufficient because it does not allow family members of green-card seekers to remain with their loved ones during the application process. Relatives currently must wait in their home countries and away from family members for up to two years; in their bill, House Republicans addressed the issue by cutting that period in half.

Of House Republicans, Gutierrez said, “It’s almost as if they didn’t hear the call from voters on Nov. 6.”

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