Tuesday, April 04, 2006

4 Hispanic Lawmakers, 4 Differing Views, 1 Point

4 Hispanic Lawmakers, 4 Differing Views, 1 Point
April 3, 2006
Kathy Kiely

The congressional debate over the first major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in a decade is "what everybody's talking about in the Hispanic community," says Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. But that doesn't mean the nation's more than 40 million Hispanics agree about the eventual outcome.

The 26 Hispanic members of Congress -- three in the Senate and 23 in the House of Representatives -- represent one of the fastest emerging political forces in the USA, in their heritage and their diversity. That diversity is evident in their attitudes toward immigration.

Conversations with four lawmakers who are playing key roles in the immigration debate and who represent a wide spectrum of Hispanic constituencies reveal a range of deeply held feelings.

For Martinez, a conservative Republican who came to the USA as a teenage refugee from Cuba, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a liberal Illinois Democrat whose Puerto Rican parents moved to Chicago to "live the dream," a top priority is preserving America's image as a beacon of hope for the world's dispossessed. Both back a bipartisan immigration bill now being debated in the Senate. The bill would beef up border security but also provide opportunities for more foreign workers to take jobs in the USA, and for those who are currently living here illegally to become citizens.

For Rep. Henry Bonilla, the Republican grandson of a migrant Mexican farmworker whose south Texas district has been invaded by cross-border drug gang violence, the top priority is securing the border. He is unapologetic about his support for the House version of the immigration and border security bill. It would make illegal immigration a felony and erect 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Rep. John Salazar, a Democrat whose family emigrated from Spain via Mexico before the United States was a nation and has been farming the same Colorado ranchland since the 1590s, was the only other Hispanic to support the bill when the House passed it in December. He says he still has misgivings about his vote.

Four different lawmakers, four differing views that make a single point about immigration: In this emotional debate, views are shaped more by the realities of geography and personal experience than by partisan loyalties and ideology.

Henry Bonilla

Bonilla calls border security the top priority in his south Texas district. According to a Department of Homeland Security report issued in March, drug-related violence has surged along the Texas-Mexico border because of a war between rival gangs. "This is not an ethnic issue," says Bonilla, a former San Antonio TV journalist. "This is a national security issue."

Bonilla, 52, whose parents and great-grandparents came from Mexico, says he supports expanding opportunities for foreigners to enter the country legally as temporary workers. He says illegal immigration penalizes people such as many of his constituents who waited "for many years" to become citizens. "I've already heard from some of them who are resentful of anybody being moved up in the line." Stricter border enforcement must come first before he will back other immigration changes. "What we need is a real strong signal from the White House that they hear us on the threat to national security."

Luis Gutierrez

Gutierrez, 52, was born in Chicago to parents from the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Though their citizenship was never in question, Gutierrez says his mother remembers looking for an apartment to rent and seeing signs that read: "No dogs or Puerto Ricans."

The family returned to Puerto Rico in the 1960s and the teenage Gutierrez, who didn't speak Spanish well, experienced the discomfiture of a newcomer. Now, as the elected representative of a district in which there are many Mexican immigrants, "when I see kids struggling with the language, I know how they feel."

Gutierrez returned to Chicago after college and worked as a social worker, a teacher and a cab driver before entering politics. He says he's helped 42,000 constituents apply for citizenship. He says that getting a handle on illegal immigration will require providing more legal opportunities for foreigners to work here and protecting illegal immigrants who are currently here from exploitation. He believes they should have a chance to become citizens.

Mel Martinez

At a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Martinez described how his experience of arriving in the USA as a 16-year-old beneficiary of "Operation Pedro Pan," an effort to rescue children from communist Cuba, has shaped his view of the debate over whom to let into the country. "It's a tough issue because there are those who feel that, frankly, we're full," Martinez said. "If that had been the prevailing view in 1962, I might not have had the chance to be your senator."

Martinez, 59, has parted company with some Republicans to lead the push for President Bush's proposal for an expanded guest-worker program and a chance at citizenship for illegal immigrants now here. An attorney who was mayor of Orlando and secretary of Housing and Urban Development before entering the Senate, Martinez says it's the only common-sense solution for a problem that's too big to deport. He's skeptical of plans to fortify the border. "It won't be a legal workforce building that wall," he says.

John Salazar

Salazar, 52, says he favors an immigration bill along the lines of Bush's proposal. That would combine border security with expanded temporary worker programs and a plan to legalize the nation's undocumented workers. His younger brother, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., is a major backer of the bill.

John Salazar says he voted for the House bill, although he opposes its plans to make illegal immigration a felony and build the border fence, because he "wanted to move the debate along." "I knew a comprehensive immigration bill wasn't going to pass in the House," he says. He hopes the Senate will send back a measure he likes better.

Salazar says he vacillated about his vote until the last minute. "I still have mixed feelings," he says. As a rancher who harvests 2,000 acres of potatoes a year, Salazar says he appreciates the need for more temporary agricultural workers. "I basically support what the president wants to do."

Source: (c) Copyright 2006 USA TODAY

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