With the immigration-reform debate shifted to the GOP-led House, President Obama is set to meet with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday, the same day Republicans in the chamber plan to gather in private to discuss how they might proceed.
In the past, the 27-member Hispanic Caucus has been the source of some guidance to Obama, who has promised to push for an immigration overhaul. But now the group finds itself wrestling internally as it faces external pressures over whether a bill passed by the Democratic-led Senate went too far in including harsh border-control measures to gain Republican backing. The possibility that House Republicans may push to bolster those security measures further is causing more concern.
Obama's meeting with the Hispanic caucus has been set for 11 a.m. Wednesday. An exact agenda of what is to be discussed was not immediately available.
“We want the CHC to tell him that the Senate bill has crossed the line and then figure out how to get the discussions back on track,” Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a Latino advocacy group that boasts some 300,000 members, said Monday. He said his group is among those that have been willing to compromise, but that what came out of the Senate is not a compromise but rather an “extreme right-wing policy” and “militarism” of the border that does not reflect Latino interests.
Carmona also said the Hispanic Caucus should be the most influential congressional voice in immigration-reform negotiations. But so far, he said, “the caucus has been silent.”
The Senate bill passed 68-32 on June 27, with 14 Republicans joining Democrats in support. The core of the plan is that it would create a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
In fact, one of the bill’s authors was Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the Hispanic Caucus’s only Senate member. Some caucus members have spoken favorably of the legislation, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., the chairman of the caucus’s task force on immigration. And Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, the caucus chairman, initially praised the bill on the day of its passage as “landmark legislation,” adding, “The Senate showed us that it is possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together to solve one of our nation’s most pressing issues.”
But just six days later, on July 3, Hinojosa projected a starkly more subdued positioning in a follow-up statement, emphasizing that the Hispanic Caucus with its 26 House members has not officially taken a position on the entire bill.
“We are pleased with the progress the Senate has made on this important issue,” offered Hinojosa. But he underscored that “we have not endorsed” the $38 billion so-called “border surge” amendment, which would add 20,000 Border Patrol agents, drones, and as much as 350 miles of additional border fencing in the Southwest.
Hinojosa’s clarification came amid the concern and even outrage by some immigration-rights groups over the added border-security provisions—but was perhaps even more a response to the July 2 resignation from the Hispanic Caucus by freshman Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat from the Brownsville area of South Texas.
Even before the bill’s passage, Vela had signed on to a statement with fellow border-area Texas Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar and Beto O’Rourke, saying they would oppose any attempt to make a pathway to citizenship conditional on the construction of additional border fencing. Cuellar is a fellow member of the Hispanic Caucus.
In a July 3 op-ed explaining his decision to resign from the caucus, Vela indicated that he viewed the comments of caucus leaders endorsing the Senate bill. He wrote, “The U.S.-Mexico border should not remind us of places like East Berlin, West Berlin, North Korea, and South Korea,” but that “opponents of serious immigration reform are extracting a pound of flesh in this process by conditioning a pathway to citizenship on the construction of more ineffective border [fencing].”
“Thus, on this issue, I could not remain silent as members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus endorsed the Senate-passed bill. For that reason, I tendered my resignation,” he explained. A spokesman said Monday that the congressman has not changed his position.
How significant a hurdle any emerging Hispanic Caucus concerns could represent is uncertain as House Republicans seek to craft their legislative response to what the Senate has passed. But a senior House Democratic leadership aide said Monday he does not believe it creates more uncertainty about whether Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could deliver votes to help Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pass a compromise bill.
“People on both sides of the aisle don’t like all of its provisions,” said the aide, referring to the Senate bill. “We’ve long said it wouldn’t be the bill we’d write, but it is a compromise, and it is comprehensive. I think this helps show that it is a true bipartisan compromise.”
This article appears in the July 9, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Hispanic Caucus Torn Over Senate Reform Bill.