Politics

Hispanic Lawmakers Show Bipartisan Tone on Immigration

DACA debate has prompted strong positions from members of both parties

Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen, left — seen here with New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat — says prior bipartisan work on immigration was an example of “how great this country is.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When it comes to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, there is little daylight among most Hispanic members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation.

President Donald Trump has said he will phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, but gave Congress a six-month window to come up with a legislative fix. By and large, Hispanic lawmakers from both parties criticized the president’s decision and said Congress needs to protect immigrants covered by DACA, also known as Dreamers, so named after the proposed DREAM Act that would provide them with a path to legal status. 

“They’re as American as apple pie, except for the paperwork, and to think we’re going to deport them back to whatever country, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador — this makes no sense because they’ve been working, they’ve been studying; now they’re productive members of our society,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told Roll Call recently. 

“I hope we can do the right thing. I hope that we can find a permanent legislative fix for these Dreamers,” the Florida Republican added. Ros-Lehtinen, who came to the United States from Cuba when she was eight, is the first Latina and first Cuban-American elected to Congress.

Watch: Members Talk About Their Hispanic Heritage

On immigration, she has company among Republicans in her own state. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents 25th District that neighbors Ros-Lehtinen’s Miami-based 27th, was long a member of a bipartisan working group on immigration. And the Sunshine State’s junior senator, Republican Marco Rubio, has co-sponsored comprehensive immigration legislation in the past with Democrats. 

Rep. Ruben Kihuen was undocumented when he first came to the United States from Mexico as an eight-year-old. The Nevada Democrat pointed out that divided government produced the immigration laws that provided him the pathway to citizenship that eventually enabled him to run for Congress. 

“That shows you how powerful and how great this country is. That it is willing to give an opportunity to an immigrant family who is willing to work hard for it,” Kihuen said, adding, “All we wanted was an opportunity in the land of opportunity.”

“I’m a Democrat serving in Congress. Yet I’m here today as a U.S. citizen thanks to a Republican president,” he said.  

Getting such a result became that much harder with the manner in which Trump acted, said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate. 

“It’s a manufactured crisis,” the Nevada Democrat said. “You have the administration rescinding [DACA]. If they really wanted to address this issue, they would have said, … ‘Let’s work on this. Pass the DREAM Act. I’ll sign the bill. Let’s get it done.’ And then we work on our colleagues to really show them why this is so important.”

Ros-Lehtinen is frustrated at what she called mixed messages from Trump, who made harsh enforcement on immigration a touchstone of his campaign and early administration, but now says he has a lot of affection for Dreamers and might revisit the policy. 

“It makes it harder for us to know what to do,” she said. “It doesn’t make it harder for me, but some of my colleagues say, ‘Well, does that mean maybe I don’t have to take this tough vote? Because he’s going to revisit it anyway?’”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, the first Colombian-American elected to Congress, sees it as part of his job to push colleagues about issues like immigration important to his constituents and fellow Hispanics.

“It reminds you of why I’m here and the other members are here advocating for the Latino community,” the Arizona Democrat said. “Because I believe if we weren’t here, there wouldn’t be as strong an advocacy as you see now.”

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